Does the thought of using your authority make you anxious?
This can really get in the way of moving the business forward.
Susan was the CEO of a small company, who found it challenging to manage her people with authority. And it was costing her considerably.
I first met Susan at a CEO forum. She was instantly likeable – people flocked around her to laugh and joke with her, and it was clear that she made friends easily.
Later, when she called me to work with her, I found that her employees also enjoyed her humor and engaging manner.
“Susan is a great listening ear,” one of her executives said. “And she’s always good for a lift in spirits.”
“Yes,” I said. “Everyone seems to appreciate her.”
“Appreciate her? Not as a leader. They like her,” the executive responded. “But as a leader, she could do with some spine. She needs to stop letting her executive team push her around.”
Although I didn’t let on, this was exactly why Susan had invited me to meet with her.
“I’m noticing that the executive team is making key decisions without me,” Susan shared later. “And I have to confess that I feel some frustration when we hold our team meetings. I feel like people are riding all over me.”
“What do you think is happening?” I asked.
Susan looked blank. “I’m not sure. But, Patti, I’m scared. How did I get here? Maybe I’m not fit to lead. Can you help?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to attend one of your executive team meetings,” I said. “Perhaps I can glean some insights that might help. Let’s talk afterward.”
When they next met, I was present. Susan introduced me as her new executive leadership coach. “If I expect all of you and the organization to grow, I need to grow first,” she laughed.
The meeting adjourned two hours later, and we met back in her office. I shared what I had observed.
The team was not aligned in any of the discussion, and they fought for personal agendas. Further, when Susan gave a recommendation on an item, two of the other team members argued her down. Finally, one of the team members seemed to dominate the entire meeting with his ideas about how things ought to run. Susan finally sat back and remained silent.
“So, I can see why you are frustrated, Susan,” I said. “It was pretty chaotic in there, and you didn’t move any one of your agenda items forward.”
“Things are just out of control,” she said. “Where do I start?”
“Pretty simple, really,” I responded. “When did you first become uncomfortable with your authority?”
During the rest of our meeting, Susan shared how she transitioned from a competitor to become CEO of her current company. When she first onboarded, the outgoing CEO warned her to play small and allow the team to acclimate to her. It seems one of the executive team members had interviewed for the CEO position and lost. Over the next few months, Susan fell into allowing the team to decide by consensus. She became anxious each time she thought about asserting her authority and backed off.
“I became a fly on the wall and became frozen, Patti,” Susan told me. “I didn’t used to be a highly anxious person. But I am, now. And the stress is overwhelming.”
Susan had taken the path of least resistance, and it had backfired.
- People on the team started making key decisions without her.
- She felt she was losing footing.
- She became vague and unclear whenever she provided direction.
- Other executives pushed back, and she backed down again.
“The anxiety has become overwhelming,” she told me. ”And I’ll do whatever it takes to remove the stress.”
“Well, get ready for more anxiety, then,” I countered. “But this time, it will be worth it.”
I shared that, whether you make a change or not, when you are not comfortable with where you are (and in Susan’s case, with exerting her authority), you will experience anxiety.
“Right now, you are experiencing chronic anxiety. Chronic anxiety comes from putting up with a situation that is stressful rather than taking the painful steps to resolve it. So that’s where you are, because you find yourself frozen and unsure as to how to move out from this space. Yet, should you choose to confront and make the change you need to make, that also creates anxiety. This kind of anxiety is acute. And we don’t like the thought of more anxiety. We put up with the chronic anxiety of inaction, so we don’t have to go through the acute anxiety.”
“That’s sounds crazy,” Susan said.
“It is, in a way,” I said. “Any attempt to change is going to make us feel the disruption of the familiar. A mentor coach of mine once explained it to me with the following example: chronic anxiety would be if you walked around with a pebble in your shoe and you just kept walking with it because it’s too much effort to take off the shoe. You don’t want to face the challenge. Acute anxiety would be if you are in a 10k race, and you have a pebble in your shoe. You realize that, if you stop to take it out, you will go a lot faster. But you will also lose time. And you will now have to face compensating to win the race. But you choose to do so; and, thus, face the challenge.”
“So, in order to get peace and reclaim my effectiveness, I will need to get off the path of least resistance, and face this. Stand up. Take back my authority.”
“Yes,” I answered. “But it’s easier said than done. There are a lot of people out there who know they need to face change, but they won’t. They need a thought partner to help strategize and implement, someone who can support them through the acute stress. The difference between them and you is that you are willing to take action on those needs.”
“Makes total sense,” said Susan. “When and where do we start?”
Susan and I worked over the next six months to help her reclaim her authority in a respectful, yet firm manner. There were some eruptions along the way, but Susan dealt with them well, which made room for the team to come together and begin to build cohesion and trust.
A year later, she called me.
“You wouldn’t recognize us,” she said. “We are moving forward together on all cylinders. Our conversations are different, and we are getting things done. I’m feeling comfortable leading, and the team is taking great pride in each of their areas of responsibility. Thank you.”
“You did the work, Susan,” I responded. “You decided a bit of acute anxiety was worth the prize. Congratulations!”
Are you identifying with Susan’s dilemma in this story?
- Where in your own leadership are you feeling chronic anxiety?
- How much is it costing you, your team, and the company?
- And the most important question: Are you willing to go through the acute anxiety needed to take back your authority?
This article is part of a series of real-life scenarios that leaders face in today’s business world. The names and details are modified to preserve confidentiality and may represent multiple occurrences.
© Patti Cotton and patticotton.com. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that attribution is made to Patti Cotton and patticotton.com, with links thereto.
Patti Cotton helps executives optimize their effectiveness in leading self, others, and the enterprise. Her areas of focus include confidence, leadership style, executive presence, effective communication, succession planning, and masterful execution. With over 25 years of leadership experience, both stateside and abroad, Patti works with individuals, teams, and organizations across industries, providing executive consulting, leadership development, succession planning, change management, and conflict resolution. She is also an experienced Fortune 500 speaker. For more information on how Patti Cotton can help you and your organization, click here.