The Power of Just Enough Anxiety

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Robert H. Rosen

Leadership used to be about creating certainty. Now it is about leading uncertainty. Most businesses today operate in environments where constant change is the name of the game. Leaders can’t keep playing the same game when the rules keep changing. What worked yesterday won’t work tomorrow. What succeeds in one industry won’t succeed in another. Let’s face it: Effective strategies seem to come and go faster than they can be replicated. To thrive in today’s chaotic seas, organizations and their leaders must dramatically change how they navigate their positions in the marketplace.

If you’re like most leaders, you are managing one burning platform after another. You may be pursuing new opportunities or coping with a crisis. You may be launching a new product or fending off a competitive challenge. Or you may be wrapped up in people problems. There is hope. Successful leaders stay ahead of the game by either shaping their world to suit themselves or quickly adapting to the world around them. The shapers actually drive change. By introducing new technologies or developing new products or processes, they redefine their organizations in fundamental ways. The adapters work creatively within existing structures. Their flexibility and willingness to explore possibilities helps them avoid problems and take advantage of opportunities. These are fresh approaches to leadership. Instead of fighting to remain afloat on a river of change, these leaders are using uncertainty and anxiety to stoke the engine and move full steam ahead. They see change and anxiety as opportunities to grow and learn. As a result, their companies are thriving. They are winning organizations—agile, innovative, profitable, and sustainable. Building a winning company is every leader’s dream.

And leading people through change is every leader’s job. It’s about taking people from where they are to where they need to be. And it’s about having the courage and commitment to drive and sustain change. Two decades of research at Healthy Companies International shows that the leaders who succeed in accomplishing these goals have something striking in common. Without exception, they excel in the five key leadership tasks that are priorities in every organization: Leadership, Strategy, Engagement, Growth, and Innovation.

But that’s not all. Successful leaders look at change, uncertainty, and anxiety through a new lens. They see themselves, their leadership, and their businesses much differently than do their less successful counterparts. As a result, they execute all five of the key leadership tasks in fundamentally different ways. Let’s see how.

LEADERSHIP: Successful leaders willingly travel into the unknown. They take uncertainty in stride. In fact, they enjoy the challenge that constant change provides. Their inquisitive nature and capacity for being uncomfortable enables them to be open to new experiences. Their deeply held values guide them as they chart paths through unfamiliar territory, unanticipated problems, and unforeseen opportunities. These leaders have the mental flexibility to manage the unexpected in a way that appears almost effortless, as if they were just going with the flow. In a very real sense, they are. But they are also firmly grounded in reality, constantly attuned to their changing
environment and to themselves. They are composed, confident, and courageous.

STRATEGY: Successful leaders set an evolving course through ambiguity, complexity, and change. They turn uncertainty and adversity into advantages. Their sound judgment leads to sound decisions, even with incomplete information. Yet they are willing to change their minds and their course of action when necessary, rapidly refining and redeploying resources. They steer and support others through change after change with a sense of urgency. Simultaneously optimistic and realistic, they risk failure in pursuit of success.

ENGAGEMENT: Successful leaders inspire and challenge people to perform beyond their own expectations. They are relationship builders. They align people around a shared vision with honest and open dialogue—and open hearts. Comfortable with conflict and disagreement, these leaders foster dynamic debate and constructive impatience. They get people involved by earning their confidence and trust. Their empathy and compassion for others allows them to stretch people into their discomfort zones, while igniting their passion to win. Their ability to motivate, coach, and develop leaders at all levels enables them to build a culture of accountability and execution.

GROWTH: Successful leaders learn and relearn in real time by stretching themselves and the business. They willingly reinvent themselves and their organizations to adapt to change. They see lifelong learning as a priority and themselves as teachers and learners. They see both success and failure as good teachers. Their resilience in the face of adversity enables them to continuously experiment and explore possibilities. It also allows them to face seemingly unending difficult and complex issues. Because they believe in people, these leaders build talent for a changing marketplace. With a sense of urgency and commitment to achieving results, they champion
informed risk taking and sustainable growth.

INNOVATION: Successful leaders imagine possibilities, discover opportunities, and release creative energies inside their organizations. They refuse to accept the status quo. There’s always a new goal to reach or a new opportunity to grab. These leaders are masterful at accessing and channeling energy, in themselves and others. They expect change, think nimbly, and question deeply. They push boundaries. They create excitement. Because they value differences, they invite diverse input and create big, bold ideas by building on smaller possibilities. Their deep understanding of changing customer needs and expectations—and their ability to unleash thecreative capabilities within their organizations—enables them to stay ahead of their competition with new and better products and services.

The Power of Just Enough Anxiety
One capability makes it possible for leaders to succeed at these key tasks. It is the capability to live with and create just enough anxiety within themselves and for others. More than any other leadership quality, this ability propels great leaders to the top. It enables them to embrace uncertainty and manage the ups and downs of a crazy world. It brings out their best performance, enables them to build great teams, and inspires and challenges their organizations. It is the hidden driver of business success.

Leaders without just enough anxiety put their companies at risk. If they have too little anxiety, they run away from uncertainty and change, eventually becoming complacent and losing out to the competition. Their lack of anxiety gives people a false sense of security and fails to inspire continuous innovation. If they have too much anxiety, they are unable to manage change and uncertainty and soon become frozen in fear. Their excessive anxiety breeds chaos and confusion, lowers productivity, and destroys morale.

Successful leaders—whom I call JEA ( just enough anxiety) leaders—understand themselves and the dynamics of change. They are at ease sitting with and talking about the anxiety that change produces, both in themselves and in those around them. They use their self- awareness to assess where they are, where they want to go in the future, and how much anxiety is just enough to get there. They know that just enough anxiety lives in the gap between their current reality and their desired outcome—where leaders do their most important work.

Over the past twenty years, I have watched scores of JEA leaders create the right amount of anxiety to move people forward in positive and productive ways. I have coached executives as they have learned to understand and use their anxiety in personal and organization-wide transitions. And I have learned from my own experience of growing a small entrepreneurial firm about
what it takes to create and live with just enough anxiety.

JEA Leadership in Action
Jean-Pierre ( J.P.) Garnier at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) can tell us a lot about how to lead people through change and uncertainty. Stepping into the CEO role following the merger of SmithKline Beecham and Glaxo Wellcome in 2001, J.P. wasted no time in shaping a new future for the company. His first step: Create a bold vision. “The core of our vision was to create the best R&D organization in the world. We realized that the industry hadn’t been very successful in discovering breakthrough medicines, and had underinvested in R&D. It was a fundamental new direction.”

Resistance was high. So instead of trying to build a winning company on shaky ground, J.P. started from scratch. He realigned systems and structures, redeployed resources, and got the right people in the right jobs. He was visible, walking the corridors and making speeches. “We saw a big jump in productivity, almost from day one,” he recalls. “We put in place some very simple measurements, like the percentage of new drugs we are getting to the market. And by doing that we’ve gone from being in the back of the pack in terms of R&D productivity to being among the best.”

J.P. understood people’s anxiety in the face of change. But he didn’t coddle them. “Too many CEOs feel they have to project the positive, tell people that everything is fine. I don’t buy that at all. You can’t treat employees like children and tell them everything is always good and great.
You can’t spend too much time on the positive or too much time on the negative. You need to be realistic to succeed.” At the same time, “people need to know and feel confident that their leaders have solutions that they haven’t thought about and that they’re going to make things happen.” It’s
the only way they will venture into the unknown.

“Fear is very paralyzing to an organization, as well as to a human being. If your fear shows, you end up passing it on to people, and they don’t think they can win. People won’t try as hard if they don’t believe they can make it. They’ll think the boat is sinking and jump ship. So you need people to believe that you’re going to win. People want to be associated with winning teams and winning organizations.

“I’m constantly trying to push the organization to the limit,” J.P. told me when we met at GSK in Philadelphia. “Sometimes I’ll hold back because, if I push too hard, it’s not going to work. You have to know when to pull your punches. You can’t get everybody excited all the time because there’s a fatigue factor. You need to have a good sense of how far you can push the organization.”

And getting people to change—one by one—is the only way to change an organization. After all, every change is personal. J.P. created just enough anxiety to reinvent GSK. Because he was looking at change, uncertainty, and anxiety through the new lens, he was able to tackle the five key leadership tasks in fundamentally different ways. He demonstrated strong leadership through his vision and willingness to tackle the unknown. He laid out a clear course through change that people could understand and follow. He engaged people by challenging them to perform beyond their own expectations—stretching them as far as they could stretch to help them move through their resistance. This released the collective energy of the organization and resulted in measurable

GSK sales in 2006 totaled $45 billion. It now supplies one-quarter of the world’s vaccines and has 149 projects in clinical development. On the people side, GSK recently finished first in employee engagement among its peers worldwide. “We’ve created positive energy by turning the company around,” says J.P.

But like a true JEA leader, J.P. is not resting on the company’s laurels. As he describes it, “We’ve operated very successfully over the past five years, but we need to keep up the pressure and the intensity. We can’t relax or spend too much time congratulating ourselves for what we have accomplished so far. We have to understand that while we have moved forward, the environment we operate in has become more complex.

“Every employee must be really focused on the work to get done. We’ve got to have lots of passionate people all over the place. We will provide an environment that is supportive, but we’re not going to tell you that life is going to be easy. We need to be resilient. We can’t be distracted from execution.” Now, that’s how you put just enough anxiety to work.

Reprinted from Just Enough Anxiety: The Hidden Driver of Business Success, by Robert H. Rosen, by arrangement with Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) Robert H. Rosen, 2008.

About the Author(s)

Robert H. Rosen is a psychologist, business advisor, researcher and bestselling author of Leading People, Global Literacies and The Healthy Company. He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1991 for his leadership research. He has interviewed more than 250 CEOs and speaks to thousands of executives around the world every year. Dr. Rosen's firm, Healthy Companies International, has worked with major organization worldwide, including Johnson & Johnson, Northrop Grumman, Intel, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Boeing, and ING. He lives in Arlington, VA.