Volumes have been written about leadership.  The job description is already long from the macro of seeing the larger picture to the micro of managing conflict and mentoring.  Whether one is talking about communicating a clear vision or inspiring the team to reach its potential, the successful leader is always portrayed as being active.  Leading initiatives, scouting out opportunities, projecting integrity comprise only a thin slice of this ideal active and striving leader.

However, in my experience both as an executive coach and former Chief Psychologist in a large teaching hospital, sometimes leadership meant doing nothing.  I was reminded of this as I was reading a personal career journey article by Dr Sarah Early where she described her path from clinical psychologist to Executive Director of the Colorado Physicians Health Program.  The quote that caught my eye came from one of Dr Early’s mentors:

“It is leadership’s role to absorb the anxiety of the organization.”

The “absorption” activity was something that I performed on a regular basis in a government-funded hospital that made budget crises a regular event.  Once or twice a year, senior managers and physicians would be summoned for an emergency meeting to discuss the always unexpected, and profoundly shocking, budget variance – by the way, the variance was never a saving but always an over-run.

The meetings resembled an Aztec human sacrifice where the CEO and CFO would attempt to “inspire” us to make the necessary and required cuts. In these surreal meetings, the organizational rewards suddenly shifted from values such as creativity and growth to reduction and elimination.  Since our budget was 90% salaries, budgets cuts invariably meant staff lay-offs with the results axing programs and closing units.  The meetings typically generated numerous horrendous scenarios that were left on the table to be evaluated by the “senior management” while the rest of us went back to work.

I never reported on these meetings to my staff. In my mind, the consequences of having a staff meeting to discuss all the disasters that might happen would be fruitless.  Bringing the staff up-to-date as some of my other colleagues did in other departments always struck me as creating unnecessary anxiety without the hope of coping.  Departmental meetings could not avoid the organizational tsunami, in fact, in my experience it would only served to reduce the perceived efficacy of the group in those situations where solutions were in fact possible.   More importantly, at least in my own career, many of the anticipated disasters simply never happened.  Sudden sources of funding appeared, costs were over-estimated, or the hospital simply learned to live with a temporary deficit.

“And this too will pass…” was a phrase that I often learned to repeat to myself.

I see this quality of the manager as an absorber of organizational stress in many of the successful leaders that I see in my executive coaching practice.  They realize that effective leaders are not active, sometimes; they just absorb the worry and carry on.