MORE THAN MENTAL HEALTH
It is time to go beyond “normalising” and “managing” mental health concerns and appreciate the transformative power intrinsic to some mental health concerns. This is true of, amongst other forms, existential anxiety. Like most other forms of anxiety, existential anxiety is terrifying, scary and horrible. However, the willingness to learn to listen to and work with the “demons” of existential anxiety is crucial to leadership transformation.
ANXIETY TRANSFORMATION AND LEADERSHIP
This was the case for Mort Meyerson, former CEO at Ross Perot systems. In a self-reflective article called “Everything I thought I knew about Leadership is wrong” Meyerson writes about the crisis he faced when he realised that his conventional top/down style of leadership would no longer work in a technology-oriented company like Ross Perot. The realisation of having reached the limits of his habitual way of leading, through him into a state of existential anxiety in which he lost all confidence in himself as a leader. His sense of himself as a leader and his sense of leadership was totally shattered. He was so convinced that he was no longer able to lead that he almost gave up.
EMOTIONAL WITHDRAWAL AND EXISTENTIAL QUESTIONING
Although he was physically present, Meyerson’s existential anxiety did trigger an emotional withdrawal and distance from his everyday activities as a leader. In this state of emotional withdrawal, he found that certain kinds of questions popped into his mind, questions that he had, for the most part, taken for granted. For example, he began to ask himself about the meaning of leadership: what does it mean to lead in general and what does it mean to lead in this new world? This kind of questioning was not just detached abstract questioning. It was a questioning from his heart. His whole way of life was at stake in the questions he was asking. It was very much an emotional form of questioning.
ALLOWING HIMSELF TO PONDER AND MEDITATE
As he allowed himself to ponder and meditate upon the questions that were emerging in him, the more curious and fascinated he became with the questions. And the more curious his questioning became, the more a new intuition about leading started to form. He started to see himself as a “coaching leader” rather than an autocratic top-down leader. As he leapt into action as a coaching leader, the more his confidence, mindset and habits of practice were consolidated. It was as if he was leading in a different world. His ways of doing things, relating to others, behaving, thinking, feeling, valuing, believing were all transformed.
What makes Meyerson’s transformation a form of existential anxiety? The anxiety emerged as a threat to his way of existing or to his way of being in the world. And his transformation was to his way of existing or being as a leader.