Leading Through Anxiety

By Michaela O’Donnell

September 1, 2023

Article, De Pree Journal, Marketplace Leaders

I was recently at a baseball game with my two kids. My young son asked for M&Ms, and I obliged. As he skipped toward them, he momentarily went out of sight. I thought, It’s ok, he’ll be at the M&Ms. Still, I picked up my pace, eager to locate him.

When I got to the M&Ms not two seconds later, he wasn’t there. He had been swallowed by a crowd of 25,000 people and was nowhere in sight. I scanned the area and when I didn’t see him, I went straight for the nearest exit. I systematically alerted all the workers not to let a small red-headed boy out while I simultaneously deployed my daughter to check all the VIP rooms.

We couldn’t find him anywhere.

The minutes ticked on, and my heart started to really race. My problem-solving instincts that told me he was somewhere close gave way to untamable fear rising in my chest. More minutes went by with still no sign of him. Half a dozen employees were searching as I trusted my daughter would keep her eye on me, and keep up, as I started to run.

Until finally I saw his little redhead emerge between two shirts.

He was being escorted toward me by a couple. When he caught a glimpse of me, he started sprinting. As he did, my fear turned to anger. How could he run off like that?

In the millisecond between when I saw him and when I got to him, I looked up at the woman who was with him. She looked me in the eye knowingly, her eyes wise and calm. Her look told me that he was safe and that I would be okay too. At exactly the same time, her husband was saying to my son, “You’re ok. Chin up, buddy. Don’t worry.”

We tell the crying child they will be okay. We lash out at each other when we are afraid. But rarely are we awake enough to a moment to look each other deeply in the eye and hold space for each other’s fears. The woman’s confidence melted my anger, so much so that by the time my child got to me I was ready to kneel down and hold him as he wept. I was able to say to him, “You must have been so scared. I was too.”

I never even said thank you to the woman with him, but she also didn’t need me to. She was so aware of what was actually hers to do that she didn’t need validation or thanks from anyone.

Without a word, she led my son, and me, exactly where we needed to go.

Studies report that one in three employees are anxious about work most of the time. [1] Oof, that’s a lot.

A shifting market, relational dynamics on a team, new systems to implement, a lack of clarity from a boss. There’s so much volatility, so much uncertainty. So much to be anxious about. No wonder it’s hard to find our way.

In Leadership Is an Art, Max De Pree said, “The signs of outstanding leadership appear primarily among the followers. Are the followers reaching their potential? Are they learning? Serving? Do they achieve the required results? Do they change with grace? Manage conflict?”

Whether you’re a boss, a parent, a friend, or a baseball fan, we all have people entrusted to our care. If you show up anxious, it fosters even more anxiety. If you show up in a non-anxious way, it creates space for other’s fears. It sets the stage for deep breaths and human connection, and for people to reach their potential and learn and contribute in meaningful ways.

Now, showing up in a non-anxious way requires a ton of ongoing personal and spiritual reflection with trusted people.

May we be people who can non-anxiously hold space for fear—getting out of the way of how God wants to cultivate the learning, graceful change, and potential of those entrusted to our care.


*This story is adapted from my upcoming book Life in Flux: Navigational Skills to Guide and Ground You in an Ever-Changing World that I wrote with Lisa Pratt Slayton.

[1] https://www.humu.com/blog/the-toll-of-workplace-anxiety-and-what-to-do-about-it#:~:text=In%20our%20most%20recent%20proprietary,action%20matters%20more%20than%20ever.

Banner image by Anna Shvets on Pexels.

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

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