High Achievers are often highly anxious: here’s how to turn anxiety into a leadership superpower

Anxiety is rife in the workplace, particularly amongst high achievers and startups. So how can anxiety be turned into your leadership superpower?

Expert and author of ‘The Anxious Achiever: Turn your Biggest Fears into your Leadership Superpower’ Morra Aarons-Mele knows anxiety can be reframed as a strength. And she speaks from experience. 

We Are Human Leaders podcast Co-hosts Sally Clarke and Alexis Zahner 

In conversation on the We Are Human Leaders podcast with hosts Alexis Zahner and Sally Clarke, she identifies the strong stigma around mental health that persists in workplaces. “We’re still living out an old, outdated view of what leadership looks like.” 

Even in the healthiest of workplace cultures, it’s hard for leaders to embrace their anxiety. 

Aarons-Mele said “Leaders have to be competent. We don’t want leaders who feel like they’re a mess. And when we’re talking about mental health, things can really get messy. It’s challenging: and it becomes easier to ignore it and not to talk about it.”

Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome are common among high achievers, and Aarons-Mele discussed the causes and management strategies Leaders can use to combat these.

Anxiety and perfectionism

As Aarons-Mele explains on the podcast, perfectionism can be paralyzing and exhausting for leaders.

 “Perfectionism is much more about anxiety than it is about doing a great job,” she said.

Aarons-Mele shared these tips for dealing with anxiety as a leader:

  1. Manage your expectations. Be aware of and reduce your investment in the outcome. Focus on finding meaning in the journey rather than the result alone.
  2. Understand your emotions. Tune into your emotions, especially when you notice procrastination. Foster self-compassion to soothe yourself through these.
  3. Get comfortable with 85% (or less). Get some distance from the automatic idea that you must achieve perfection every time. 
  4. Allow yourself to learn from mistakes. Rather than fretting over mistakes, embrace them as part of the learning journey.
  5. Call out your inner critic. Notice and name that little voice inside your head telling you you’re not good enough. This creates separation between self and thoughts. 
  6. Let others be awesome. Rather than you needing to be perfect and achieve everything, delegate so others can shine.

‘It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me’? Not always.

Aarons-Mele underscores that not all anxiety is an inside job. Sometimes it’s an intelligent response to stressful circumstances. This is particularly so for people in groups who are underrepresented and face discrimination at work.

 “Mental health is highly intersectional. When we are ‘other’, we are often treated critically or like impostors. We are given valid reasons to be anxious,” she said.

The impact of awareness

As a starting point for making anxiety your superpower, Aarons-Mele recommends developing self-awareness and doing the work of uncovering how anxiety operates for you, and how it impacts your leadership. As she explains to Zahner and Clarke on the We Are Human Leaders podcast, “You don’t have to tell your story of mental health at work. It’s not your job. You don’t have to tell anyone you don’t want to. But doing the work is really useful.”

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