Leaders Need ‘Just Enough Anxiety’


March 4, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

Robert Rosen’s latest book, Just Enough Anxiety, shows us that somewhere between coasting along and being paralyzed with panic lies the land of just enough anxiety. In the past, I thought of anxiety as a bad thing! His perspective on today’s fast-moving, always-changing, crazy business world – and how we can live successfully in it – changed my perception of anxiety. I invited Bob to discuss his respect for anxiety and how it can be helpful. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation:

In Just Enough Anxiety, you claim the ability to harness anxiety is the single most important leadership quality you’ve discovered in nearly two decades of working with, and interviewing, more than 250 top leaders. What do you mean by “just enough anxiety”?

Just enough anxiety is the level of anxiety that gives us, as individuals and organizations, the emotional charge we need to thrive in an uncertain world. It is the energy that drives us forward, stretches us, and challenges us to be better tomorrow than we are today.

Why is just enough anxiety particularly important for business today?

Business today is all about change. Volatile global markets, declining consumer loyalty, and increasing competition are forcing leaders across industries and sectors to continually reinvent their companies. Such constant change makes people anxious. The leaders who rise to the top are those able to create just the right level of anxiety throughout their organizations to maximize and mobilize human energy, and to get the most creative ideas, the highest levels of engagement, and the best performance from their people. They are just enough anxiety, or JEA, leaders.

How can leaders manage anxiety instead of letting it manage them?

It starts with self-awareness. One leader’s “just enough” may be “too much” or “too little” anxiety for someone else. There is no one-size-fits-all level. Once you understand what makes you anxious, you are better able to increase or decrease your anxiety, as needed, to create just enough. By admitting what you can and can’t control, you can take charge of your life while remaining open to the unexpected. You can recognize anxiety as your natural companion on the path of change.

Do you make distinctions between anxiety, fear, and stress?

Anxiety, fear, and stress are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. Fear is our innate survival mechanism, our emotional response to impending danger, either real or imagined. Stress is wear and tear on the mind/body in response to external events or conditions that strain our capacity to adapt. Anxiety is a state of arousal that occurs naturally when we face change and uncertainty.

And why are we so afraid of anxiety?

We’re afraid of anxiety because of centuries of viewing change as dangerous, even life-threatening. And we’ve learned from medical models to see anxiety as a mental health problem. We’ve developed faulty thinking that goes something like this: Change and uncertainty make me anxious. Anxiety is bad, a sign of weakness. Therefore, I have to avoid change and uncertainty. I have to do whatever I can to avoid anxiety. Afraid that we can’t understand or manage anxiety, we avoid, deny, resist, run away from, or medicate it. We refuse to see our anxiety as a major source of energy, for ourselves and our organizations.

Your book mentions the perils of living with too much or too little anxiety. Tell me about those.

Too much anxiety is tied to negative thinking. When we feel too much anxiety, we attack change. We become combative or controlling as we try to ease the pain we feel. This creates confusion and pain for the people around us, making organizational change difficult, or even impossible. At the other end of the continuum, too little anxiety is grounded in contentment. When we feel too little anxiety, we avoid change, value the status quo, and believe everything will continue to be O.K. If your company is going through tough times, like a bad economy or a merger, you definitely don’t want too little anxiety.

In your experience, do great leaders always have just enough anxiety, or do they move back and forth between too much and too little?

JEA leaders are not static. They move along the continuum of healthy anxiety – that space between too little and too much anxiety – over time and as circumstances change. They continually adjust the level of anxiety within themselves and their organizations. The goal is to use just enough anxiety to maximize learning, creativity, achievement, and performance at each moment in time.

Do you think that most leadership advice is too focused on external action and not enough on the internal or psychological? Why are both important?

Great leadership is all about mastering the human side of business. When great leaders understand themselves and others, they can motivate and mobilize people toward a better future. But psychological intelligence is not enough. Leaders must also take action, pushing themselves to excel while inspiring excellence in others.

How can leaders cultivate JEA in themselves?

Becoming a JEA leader is all about learning to balance between too much and too little anxiety, between being nice and being tough. It requires the ability to live with two opposing views at the same time – what I call living in paradox. JEA leaders are masters at this. In fact, their ability to master three key paradoxes – realistic optimism, constructive impatience, and confident humility – is crucial to their success.

What’s the first step our readers can take to start benefiting from just enough anxiety?

I’ll give you two. First, they need to learn to embrace the unknown. If they can see life as an adventure, they won’t be blown off course by the winds of change. Second, they need to be aware of and befriend their anxiety. This allows them to tone it down when it starts to dominate their thoughts, or draw it forth when they need some additional motivation. They can create just enough anxiety inside themselves to move forward more confidently through life’s ups and downs.

Another author I interviewed, John Izzo, talked about how people facing death don’t regret the risks they took – they regret the risks they avoided. This is very consistent with what you are saying! How can our readers reach you?

Readers can visit our Web site: www.justenoughanxiety.com.