A non-anxious presence

I had never heard of the term “non-anxious presence”. The irony was not lost on me that the two men who explained the term, how it worked and its value in leadership were both “drama kings”. Both men were/are visionary leaders who see the big picture of the organizations they have led, both like to go to the “balcony”, their term for getting above the hubbub, the day to day weeds that get us stuck in task and prevent us from seeing the big picture. I am blessed to have known both men, I love task and I am efficient at task so it would be easy for me to lose that important piece of leadership, getting to a space where we can see where we are headed and what corrections are needed to move from where we are going to where we need to go.

Again, the irony that these two men loved drama and had volcanic tempers was not lost on me. One thing that prevented groups they led from getting to that big picture place was the flare up tempers of these leaders, the emotions and flashing anger distracted everyone as all had to endure the lengthy grievance rant. The emotion also froze the other participants from offering their own insights. No one would speak after the lightning had struck. Still when both were in a good “space” they could and would move us from the weeds in front of us to the place where we could see our organization, our mission and who we were at that moment. Helping us to chart that course to the future, moving us from where we are to where we need to be was pure gold and the results were obvious.

I have never forgotten those lessons. I would share with these leaders the challenge of moving forward in vision and mission when change caused upset and resistance. Both leaders reminded me that when these roadblocks appeared the role of the leader was to exhibit a “non-anxious presence”, which in essence meant not over reacting to the resistance, looking to see if it was one cranky person or whether that person was in fact the “canary in a coal mine”. In other words did the source of discontent come from a unique set of filters and therefore their critique should be taken seriously but not reflective of anything other than one person’s ‘stuff” or was this person in fact speaking for others who remained on the sidelines but were nonetheless very concerned. The former was in fact a pastoral issue, requiring one on one care but not any real revisiting of the mission that had been chosen. The latter was cause for concern and there may be a need to take a hard look at the path chosen.

This insight has been so helpful to me. In the past I would reaction to every cranky voice with an anxious need to explain things, offer the compelling reasons for going forward and treat that one voice with some degree of alarm. No more! Others are watching and the group will become skittish about following a vision if they witness the leadership running for cover every time someone offers a lame critique of the plan. That is why leaders need to be calm, kind and resolute. There is reason to explain, to care, to listen but if the crankiness is more a reflection of the person’s unease with change and not a sign of brewing collective confusion and mutiny then the leader needs to react with appropriate calm and resolve. People are watching. Striking that balance, between listening to the concern and being non-anxious about the crankiness and committed to the big picture, is essential to leadership.