Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Leading in an Anxious Culture 

Written by: on February 23, 2024

Anxiety and overwhelm weren’t big issues for me until recently, after a build-up of chronic stress that had me in the hospital almost every week for a year and a half. While everything in me wanted to focus on helping myself, there was always work to be done, so I did what any “hard worker” would do and dove in deeper. This led to not only my physical health declining but my emotional and mental health as well. Rather than taking the time to discern my moves intentionally, I reacted, making decisions from a place of fear and lack rather than attunement. I had hired an Operations Manager who wasn’t ready for the role. Even when I disagreed with her, I’d go along with what she wanted to do, simply because it was easier and I didn’t have the energy to deal with her “fits” when things didn’t go her way. This often came back to bite me in the butt because, inevitably, it would lead us down unsustainable and inauthentic routes, which I’d then have to work twice as hard to come back from.  

I started to resent the team I built because they weren’t meeting the standards. Not only that, but I’d gone from a solopreneur to a small team to get more time and make things easier, but this was neither. I went through several cycles of firing and hiring but ended up in the same place, just with different people. I was exhausted and knew something needed to change. Reflecting on my problems, I realized I was the common denominator. 

I had been frustrated at the lack of responsibility others were exhibiting and would get angered by them not taking ownership of projects or not delivering on what they promised. But I had decided to hire them in the first place. It was I who was avoiding the hard conversations when they fell short. It was I who was letting them play small with no repercussions. It was I who was leading by a poor example. I had to ask myself, “Why?”. From that, a whole world of insight was uncovered.

In “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, “Edwin Friedman shares years of insight as a family systems therapist and rabbi, applying lessons from his work to the church, leadership, and American society at large. Friedman makes the case that we live in a “leadership-toxic climate” where chronic anxiety creates and nurtures a variety of characteristics that have major implications on how we lead. He believes that most of what we see in leadership today is “gridlocked” by echo chambers that keep us in anxious cycles. These echo chambers include reactivity, herding, blame displacement, a quick-fix mentality, and a lack of well-differentiated leadership (the inevitable culmination of the first four).[1]

Some of the shared elements of family systems theory that he highlights as pervasive in American society include:” (1) systems that allow the weakest, most dependent members of any organization, group, or family to set the agenda, (2) the depreciation of individuation among leaders, discouraging them from relying on their decision-making ability but instead on “expertise,” (3) an obsession with techniques and data, and (4) a widespread misunderstanding in relational processes in families and systems that persuade leaders to solve problems through consensus or peace-making.” [2] 

When I think about how I show up as a leader during extreme burnout, it’s easy to spot these toxic traits and tendencies at play. Friedman outlines how organizations, like individuals, require a healthy immune system, or they’ll be susceptible to disease. When I first started building a team, I was in an emotionally and physically healthy state. I had a clear sense of self and vision of where I was taking the organization. I built an organization chart, clarified roles, and adopted an apprenticeship model paired with leadership coaching for every team member. I had some truly wonderful people help me build out the basis of a scalable company. But as time passed, client demands, my responsibilities, and overhead increased. Plus, now I was operating less and less in my zone of genius, feeling even more out of depth, without an executive team of support and added pressure of others’ livelihoods riding on my ability to meet needs. I stopped trusting myself, and what got me to where I was (the Spirit’s guidance) less and less. Instead, I searched for “experts” to apply what the latest data says to do to successfully scale. When it came to the team getting things done, I offered empathy and understanding, thinking it was a form of living our values in action. However, I later saw how detrimental that was and now realize how much there is to learn from the Fallacy of Empathy. 

This only added to my stress, making the “quick fix” mentality all the more appealing when, in fact, I knew that was not what I wanted. However, reaction often becomes your only option when you have nothing to give physically, and at this point my body had completely shut down. Eve Poole highlights the impact of constant stress states in her book “Leadersmithing,” explaining how it kicks us out of our neocortex (the most evolved part of the cerebral cortex) and into our amygdala (the reptilian brain), where our flight, flight, freeze, and fawn process take control[3]. But how could anyone support me when I was stuck in a cycle of reactivity, fighting against everything that felt like it was creeping upon me? Friedman writes, “The most damaging effect of intense reactivity in any family is on its capacity to produce or support a leader[4]. Thus, we as an organization could only help develop leaders once I could return to a healthy state. For someone whose work was focused on building leadership as our external “products,” this was a big roadblock. Ultimately, it called for a complete halt in work as I knew it, to focus on my healing and exploring the patterns I saw present between myself and my clients.  

As I continue to research and rebuild, the question remains: how do we lead in our current culture of anxiety when we know constant stress states make us lousy leaders? Friedman’s way forward is to develop more “well-differentiated leaders” who break past the echo chamber of what’s urgent to cultivate a calm mentality and steady presence of leadership.[5] He breaks down some practical support to grow awareness and development. While it’s a really powerful start, I can’t help but be riddled with more questions and yearn to know more…


[1] VanCamp, Trey . “PASTORS: STOP FEEDING the CYCLE of ANXIETY | Analyzing Edwin Friedman’s ‘Failure of Nerve.’” www.youtube.com. Trey VanCamp, November 13, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mYKndgLOV3U&t=402s.

[2] Fuller, Andrew . “Book Review of Edwin H. Friedman’s a Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.” Ex Vitæ Verborum. Blogpot, September 28, 2020. https://andrewfullerblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/book-review-of-edwin-h-friedmans-a-failure-of-nerve-leadership-in-the-age-of-the-quick-fix/#_ftn1.

[3] Poole, Eve. “LeaderSmithing | Eve Poole | TEDxDurhamUniversity.” www.youtube.com. TEDx Talks, April 12, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73L1613KDnw.

[4]Friedman, Edwin H, Margaret M Treadwell, and Edward W Beal. A Failure of Nerve : Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York, New York: Church Publishing, 2017. Pg 64

[5] Fuller, Andrew . “Book Review of Edwin H. Friedman’s a Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.” Ex Vitæ Verborum. Blogpot, September 28, 2020. https://andrewfullerblog.wordpress.com/2020/09/28/book-review-of-edwin-h-friedmans-a-failure-of-nerve-leadership-in-the-age-of-the-quick-fix/#_ftn1.

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18 responses to “Leading in an Anxious Culture ”

  1. Daren Jaime says:

    Hi Akwese. I can see the bridge you build between being an emotionally healthy leader and having a highly effective team. I’m curious to know as a leader during your season of burnout, how in tune were you with the anxiety of your team? I find that sometimes we lose track of the anxiety of others when we are in burnout/ crisis ourselves.

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      That is very true, Daren. It’s hard to be in tune with others’ emotions ( be it anxiety or anything else) when you yourself are in overdrive. I go into survival mode, and all I’m trying to do is find the quickest and easiest way to get through each moment. I think this is why it’s really hard to lead when in a constant stress state and why, for me, what felt best in the end was to take a break from it all to focus on healing. The challenge is not everyone is in a position where they feel they can take a break, so I praise God that was something He helped me do.

  2. Graham English says:

    Akwese, thanks for sharing your story. I appreciate your humility and tenacity. Thanks for not just giving up. Rather, you have recognized where you have fallen short and desire to change. Well done!
    As you rebuild, how do you develop healthy rhythms that help sustain you through the stress? Who will you have in your constellation of external “mentors” or “coaches” to support you?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks, Graham, I appreciate that. Also, great questions! Honestly, I’m still finding my rhythm and building a support team. The process is not always fun, but I’m learning to appreciate it. I think it’s a daily practice of checking in with myself and reevaluating everything I “try on” to adjust and reiterate until things feel solid. In terms of mentors and coaches, I have a few, but I am in search of more. I realized some of the coaches I had before who were wonderful aren’t a good fit in this season, so it’s been an interesting journey discerning what I really need, and seeking it out.

  3. Debbie Owen says:

    Akwese, I totally feel your issues. Thank you for sharing them so openly. I’ve been a part of – and watched from afar – a number of growing online businesses. Kudos to you for recognizing that when you step out of your zone of genius, that’s when things get tricky.

    What do you think will contribute to you being able to maintain a non-anxious presence? How might that contribute to your ability to lead your team? Are there are other attributes you are now aware of that will help you be a less-stressed, more confident leader?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks, Debbie. It is certainly far too easy for the anxiety to creep in and old patterns to take over. Maintaining a non-anxious presence for me has been a daily practice of remembering what’s true and what isn’t. Getting outdoors, moving my body, having adequate sleep, a more set routine, and a support team are all helpful. They take intentionality, though, so I’m a work in progress. In terms of being a less-stressed, more confident leader, I learned I need to go back to how I was in the beginning, which means focusing only on what God’s called me to do and letting the rest sort itself out ( easier said than done but at least I have that clarity of direction).

  4. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Akwése!! I felt your pain and frustrations as I read you post. Love your honesty and reality. Your words “I stopped trusting myself, and what got me to where I was (the Spirit’s guidance) less and less. Instead, I searched for “experts” to apply what the latest data says to do to successfully scale.” What did you learn from that and how do you react in the future if you are in a season of not trusting yourself again?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks, Chris, I really appreciate that! You ask a deep question, though. This experience made me see an even larger pattern of how much I was dismissing and abandoning myself. As I reflected, I realized it was because I was doing so much alone and didn’t have much external feedback ( which used to be a weekly practice for me since I love feedback, ha). My solution moving forward is to seek out more communities of practice with practitioners in my field and also build out a local community of alignment with other entrepreneurs near me. I’ve also started being more intentional in checking in with myself around when I’m not trusting and noting down little tidbits surrounding those moments so I can continue to learn from them.

  5. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Akwese, firstly, thanks for sharing your personal journey with anxiety and overwhelm on your blog. Your transparency and vulnerability takes immense courage and your willingness to share is a massive help to so many people.

    Your insights into the toxic traits and tendencies that emerge in leadership during times of extreme burnout are interesting. How can individuals, especially those in leadership positions, cultivate the resilience and self-awareness necessary to become well-differentiated leaders? What specific strategies or practices have you found most effective in your own journey towards greater self-differentiation and leadership efficacy amidst chronic stress and anxiety?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks, Glyn, that means a lot. Strategies and practices that have supported me include regular reflection, slowing down, doing my best to break projects into one specific thing I can focus on at a time, and building a team of aligned support. This last one feels really key but is a slow process. I’ve had to cut a lot of things out and be very intentional about who and whom I give my energy. Honestly, energy management is huge. Something could take 5 minutes to do, but if it takes so much energy from me to even be able to start it, it’s not worth the investment since those 5 minutes could end up being 5 hours. This is also how I determine what to delegate, say no to, or put on hold for a later time.

  6. mm Jennifer Eckert says:

    Thank you, Akwese, for sharing your self-reflection in this post. I hope you felt a sense of liberation in doing so. As you return to your place of genius and the concepts that were your successful roots (they’re still there!), how can you help prepare differentiated leaders with the courage to resist the sabotage that Friedman talks about?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks, Jennifer! Honestly, I still don’t feel ready to equip anyone yet, as there’s still a lot I need to do to support myself, AND if I were to share one piece of support, I guess it would be to talk about the reality of sabotage with them.

      Something I used to tell my teams was that it’s not a question of “if” you drop the ball, but “when.” By naming that they will drop balls, and I will drop balls too, and it’s okay to drop balls because we’re human, it made the environment so much easier to work in, as it removed a big chunk of the fear.

      I think it’s the same with sabotage. Fridman says sabotage can’t be avoided or wished away but is a core part of leading. If we can start talking about the ways it shows up, leaders will be better positioned to notice it in themselves and to work with it when it shows up rather than run, avoid, or hide in shame.

  7. Julie O'Hara says:

    Akwése, Thank you for sharing your story – felt myself along for the ride and my soul is encouraging and cheering for you. This quote really stood out, “When it came to the team getting things done, I offered empathy and understanding, thinking it was a form of living our values in action.” This is very similar to the way that many pastors approach ‘problems’ in the congregation – and I suppose parents sometimes with children…If you’ve rebuilt your health and business enough to face similar situations again, what is something you have been able to do differently?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks, Julie, and great question! I haven’t rebuilt enough yet. However, I know that something I’m already doing in my everyday life and as I think about the rebuild, is reframing how I view holding standards.

      A little over a year ago, I met this woman, and in our first conversation, she stopped me mid-sentence and said something along the lines of ” I bet you have a lot of people telling you that you’re ‘too much’ — saying you ask for too much and have unrealistic expectations.”

      I was a bit shocked because it felt like it came out of nowhere, but she continued stating, ” As you’ve been speaking, I hear a very clear spirit of excellence over you, and there are many people who will see that and say it’s ” too much”, so be prepared for it but do not believe it. Continue to hold those standards, and while it might be lonely at first, God will bring the right people, and they will not think what you ask is ‘too much’ or ridiculous”.

      I’ll never forget this encounter and I intentionally revisit her words often when I need help reframing any time I feel ” bad” for enforcing a standard. I must remind myself that I can understand why the standard isn’t met and offer compassion, but I do not have to tell myself that holding someone accountable to a clearly articulated standard is mean or uncaring or unrealistic.

      For a while, I kept saying I wanted friends around me who hold me to a higher standard and call me out when I play small, and now that’s how I must reframe all of my boundaries — I want my team to know that I care for them too much to let them play small, I see their potential for excellence so I invite them to step up and into it 💪🏾

  8. mm Kari says:

    Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your journey with burnout. I’m wondering if there was a spiritual discipline that first lost priority in your life as you dealt with the chronic anxiety cycle? Is there a spiritual discipline that has been particularly helpful as you have found healing?

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Great question! My devotional and praise/worship time as a consistent container were among the first to decrease/drop, along with swimming ( which is another time I use for prayer/conversation with God). When I think about when things flowed the best, 80% of my day was spent on spiritual disciplines and 20% was my work. This is what I aim to work back to and what I’m finding helpful as I heal are prayer walks and mentorship on Kingdom Principles.

  9. Elysse Burns says:

    Akwése, you walked through a very difficult season. I definitely see a well-differentiated leader (YOU) in this story. You showed self-awareness and courage to make necessary changes for your healing. I struggled with panic attacks for about a year and it was the hardest, scariest time of my life. At the time I didn’t realize I could actually do something about it. I just viewed myself as weak. I know this was a lie I had been telling myself.

    I appreciate your question: “How do we lead in our current culture of anxiety when we know constant stress states make us lousy leaders?” I keep thinking of Friedman’s emotional triangle and positioning myself to be the “A” – apex. Tom Camacho’s “Mining for Gold” has been in the forefront of my mind in regards to operating in my sweet spot (something I am not sure I have done yet). I believe finding my sweet spot can get me to the apex of the triangle. I suppose that was a very long explanation to ask…what would operating in your sweet spot look like as you reevaluate and rebuild? I realize this is a very big question. No pressure for a response here.

    • Akwése Nkemontoh says:

      Thanks for your response, Elysse, and for sharing your struggles. I resonate with the challenge of initially not realizing you can do something about it and viewing yourself as weak. I’ve always taken pride in being a “hard worker”, so when I couldn’t “work” my way through my anxiety, I felt stuck.

      Regarding your question, I have been blessed to work in my sweet spot for many years. Things changed when I wanted to grow my business; it required me to move from spending most of my day as a practitioner working “in” the business to spend more time as an entrepreneur working “on” the business. As I went through this process, I realized that if I wanted to thrive in the entrepreneur role, I’d need to translate my sweet spot to how I serve as a developer of people internally and as a thought leader and vision holder. I do see how it’s possible and feel there are a variety of options to transition my role yet still operate in my sweet spot. So in this next season of life, my focus is on developing, documenting and sharing my voice. From there, I believe the rest will flow…

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