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Two ways leaders can foster calm and clarity of thinking

Recently, a physician friend of mine shared his convictions about toxins in the body.

“We’re always taking in pollution, chemicals and other toxins,” he said. “The good news is that if you’re breathing, sweating, sleeping, peeing and defecating, the toxins aren’t staying around long enough to cause problems. Basically, eat right and keep moving.”

That’s helpful to know, but it’s an incomplete picture.

As a healthy body naturally eliminates environmental poisons, it faces a parallel invasion of emotional toxins, the most potent of which is chronic anxiety. 

Medical and scientific research increasingly pinpoints anxiety as a silent contributor to a lengthy list of symptoms, including skin rashes, migraines, inflammations, cancers, depression, addictions and relationship problems.

Off-loading anxiety might be our most important detoxifier.

So, how do we reduce the stress we absorb, or handle it better?

Our immune and endocrine systems help moderate the effects of anxiety, but for most of us, we’re ingesting more than our systems can manage. That puts us—and the people around us—at risk, because anxiety in a system can spread like a virus.

Families, businesses, societies—these are the envelopes that carry and spread chronic anxiety. Think for example of how the media ratchets up societal anxiety by the manner in which news is reported, or how anxious parents keep their children on pins and needles.

Some members in any system are more vulnerable to picking up stress. We don’t exactly know how this vulnerability works, but we do know that higher anxiety increases the likelihood of the symptoms mentioned above.

I have been privileged to take part in deeply personal conversations with top-level leaders for the past 30 years. In those conversations, I’ve listened to plenty of anxiety-triggering challenges, including financial, family and business losses, partnership disagreements, hiring disasters, marital affairs, fears and humiliations.

Whenever I’ve asked leaders to share how their own behaviors contribute to these problems, two consistent patterns show up:

“I don’t have time to think.”

“I have no one to talk to.”

‘No time to think’

Some misrepresent “no time to think” as a time management problem. But it has more to do with anxiety than with calendar discipline.

When we’re emotionally stressed, our thinking recedes. This process is widespread, clinically verifiable and often beneath our awareness.

Stress triggers reactivity to the point where we literally cannot think about thinking.

Think about that.

Think about the consequences of any leader of any group not being able to think straight.

Clear, calm thinking is important because it rescues us from the slavery of emotional over-reacting and impulsive decision-making. It also makes us more resilient in the face of mistakes or setbacks.

An interesting mutuality occurs between thinking and calmness. Thinking helps calm us down when we’re upset. Yet at the same time calmness enables us to gather our thoughts. Calming down and clear thinking seem so interconnected that it’s hard to tell which comes first.

Leaders who function with greater calmness and thought have shared some of their secrets with me: 

“I’ve learned how to meditate, and it has made a difference.”

“It’s dawned on me that I don’t have to answer every question I’m asked. I can take some time to separate from a situation where I’m unclear and give it more thought.”

“As I’ve come to accept my own humanity and fallibility, it’s become easier for me to accept others. I just don’t get bent out of shape like I used to.”

“Keeping a daily journal has helped me slow down my pace and think more clearly about where I’m going and how I want to get there. It’s also given me a record of my ideas and desires.”

‘No one to talk to’
A second anxiety-related pattern is conversational isolation, characterized by the common refrain: “I have nobody to talk to.”

By “talk” these individuals are not referring to casual business banter, discourse related to sports and politics, or superficial chatting. What they’re missing is depth of self-disclosure and mutually meaningful conversations.

I sometimes ask clients, “You spend your entire day listening to others; who listens to you?” 

The usual response is, “no one.”

The absence of meaningful dialogue that permits unpretentious self-disclosure and attentive listening poses one of the biggest threats to high-value leadership. 

Most leaders are so clumsy with candid self-disclosure that they require a patient listener on the receiving end as they seek to put into words their experiences, thoughts and feelings.

Patient listeners are in short supply. Yet those who decide they want confidential conversations find a way to locate those resources.

Reflecting and self-disclosing

I’m suggesting that leaders everywhere supplement their healthy eating and regular exercise by making time to calmly reflect and to seek resources for meaningful, personal conversations.

The hope, informed by trustworthy research, is that opportunities to reflect and self-disclose will contribute to quieting the mind, interrupting hectic busyness and regulating anxiety. 

That opens the possibility that leaders will bring a wider perspective to their extended family, nuclear family and work relationships, to their tasks and to their most important decisions.

Calmness and clarity of thinking impact life in big ways. Chronic anxiety stands in the way, and it makes good sense to take it on.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  1. John, this is quite insightful. I have had patient listeners over the years and can say that those times yielded more clarity of thought and calmness. It’s difficult to find patient listeners, but they are out there. Recently I’ve found talking to my spouse about things has been helpful. I had not given her enough credit for “understanding” what I was experiencing, but I was wrong. She is actually quite insightful, not about the business problems, but about my reaction to them! She has seen me at my best and worst, and isn’t afraid to point out what I need to hear where others may hesitate to say it. My system is far from perfect, and I can be distant from my spouse and internalize. But I’ve found that when I do share on this level with her, it creates the added benefit of connection with someone I love, and actually helps bring us closer, even though she probably can’t solve my problem. She does help me open the pressure valve and release some of that anxiety resulting in more clarity. The system that we operate in emotionally is slowly getting more air time. Thanks for the article; I found it to be thought-provoking.


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