Leadership Lessons – How to Stop Worrying. Two Important Strategies to Overcome Worry and the Negative Stress. The Leadership Wisdom of Jesus.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.… So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. (Matt. 6: 25–29, 34)
Do you make a habit of worry? Do you dedicate a great deal of attention and energy to worrying about failures of the past or concerns of the future? What is your honest appraisal of what you accomplish when you worry? What are the fruits of your worry labor? If the first step to becoming an effective leader of others is to become an effective self-leader, is being a persistent worrier the mark of a good leader?
Jesus articulated perhaps the most penetrating analysis of the futility of worry ever offered. His words in this regard are among his most poetic and poignant: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns.… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” Indeed, birds and flowers of the field don’t scurry around driven by worry about yesterday’s failures or tomorrow’s potential disasters, and they do just fine. In fact, they do more than fine as they soar through the air and grace the earth with arguably life’s greatest picture of beauty and most sumptuous fragrances. “Why worry?” Jesus asks. It just doesn’t make sense.
Jesus’ aesthetic piece of verbal art consisted of more than poetic prose based on nature, however. In fact, my favorite part of the worry-free philosophy he advocated deals with the issue of what worry accomplishes. “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” In the book of Luke (12: 26) he adds, “If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” We are offered the penetrating challenge to reflect on what all the energy and time devoted to worry accomplishes. Obviously, unless we are masochistic, we do not enjoy the worry process for its own sake. As Jesus points out, it cannot add to our lives even a tiny instant in the course of time. In fact, the mounting medical evidence suggests the opposite: that the stress caused by worry can lead to a vast array of personal problems, including dramatically life-shortening illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and many others. Indeed, worry cannot add even a tiny amount to our longevity, but it can significantly shorten it, and sometimes dramatically.
Stress from inner struggles and the multitude of pressures that require our attention at work and in our personal lives arguably causes more health and psychological difficulties than any other source. A plethora of studies have blamed stress for countless health problems and billions of dollars of costs. (The cost of job stress in the United States alone has been estimated at $200 billion a year.) It is little wonder, then, that stress was labeled the “twentieth-century disease” by the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. Simply put, stress can make our lives a mess. And a very poisonous ingredient of destructive stress is the mental process we call worry.
Despite tremendous progress in knowledge and practice in health care over the past few decades, the epidemic of destructive worry and stress persists. For example, one of the recent major concerns of people at work is fear of job loss. A four-year survey of 2.2 million people found that nearly half of U.S. employees were worried about losing their jobs. Further, nearly half believed that good work performance would not protect them from layoffs by the less loyal employers of recent times. While such concern is understandable given that many people have lost jobs, it is also interesting to note that this widespread worry was found at a time of low unemployment.
Of course, the fact that worry and stress can be quite harmful is not new to us; we’ve heard it all before. Furthermore, most of us accept and believe this persistent message. The problem is that doing something about the worry process is one of the most elusive challenges of human existence.
Worry can lead to physical drain, illness, psychological turmoil, and damage to interpersonal relationships. My own life has been replete with evidence of the destructive capacity of worry. In a previous career in retailing I had a boss who reported such extensive worry that he experienced persistent insomnia. He also developed a nervous stomach that frequently caused him to become physically ill. Another former coworker admitted that he drank heavily every night to deaden the pain of his anxiety and worry. Still another colleague was completely convinced that a close friend’s death from cancer was caused by years of worry on the job. The cases are nearly endless. I have personally experienced depleted energy and various physical symptoms during stressful life experiences. So eliminating worry has become extremely important to me. Indeed, as noted earlier, evidence points to strong links between worry-induced stress and illness and disease, drug and alcohol abuse, and a host of the worst plagues of human existence.
Self-help books and seminars offering techniques that promise to remove fear and worry from our lives seem to be everywhere in our contemporary fast-paced, competitive society. Some of these books and seminars provide temporary relief, if not long-term benefits. Unfortunately, however, most of these potential remedies produce only short-term or inadequate improvements for most people. What seems to be needed is a more pervasive shift in our entire belief system and well-thought-out, customized behavioral strategies for addressing the all-too-seductive worry process. The real cure for worry may well rest in a fundamental shift in the way we view ourselves and the way we live on a daily basis.
I have personally found the philosophy and prescriptions of self-help psychology to be useful but never enough. So, like most people, I have continued my quest for the holy grail of peace and contentment that could provide a solid base for a healthy, power-filled life of personal effectiveness with as few worry-based, wasteful energy leaks as possible. In my broad search I have not found a more powerful yet straightforward philosophy than that offered some 2000 years ago by Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t need contemporary research evidence to make his position convincing. Worry and the negative stress it causes detract dramatically from our enjoyment of everyday life and accomplish nothing of value. Worry occupies our minds with disturbing thoughts and causes our bodies significant pain. It makes us tired and ornery. And even though we would like to believe that it can be a sign of love for those about whom we worry, the drain it places on us actually makes us less capable of loving.
So what can we do about worry? Jesus suggests two important strategies. First, we can recognize our worry and its futility. That is, we can take charge of our thoughts rather than letting worry run wild to ravage our minds and our energy. Instead, we can become fully aware of it and recognize its wastefulness. This is an important first step because it can establish the basis, especially the motivation, for change. Second, Jesus urges us not to worry about tomorrow—to let today’s trouble be enough for today. This exhortation is very consistent with the widespread conventional wisdom that calls us to focus on the present, to live in the moment.
Of course, many other prescriptions are available that build on the worry-busting philosophy that Jesus provided. For example, one approach based on a procedure described by Rowland Folensbee (the director of a Houston worry clinic) includes three primary steps: (1) recognize worry as soon as it occurs, (2) interrupt the worry with techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or meditation (Jesus would suggest prayer), and (3) set aside a thirty-minute period each day to worry. That’s right, the final step calls for us to reduce our worry by confining it to an uninterrupted half-hour period each day. Instead of letting worry run unchecked, we are asked to save up our worries and then allow ourselves a controlled dose (not unlike an inoculation to fight disease) at a prescheduled time.
Many clients have experienced reductions in worry of nearly 50 percent using this procedure. For example, an insurance company president reported being a chronic worrier all his life. He was exhausted from sleepless nights, and his productivity and quality of life had suffered greatly. After applying the worry-reduction procedure for a few months, his worry had all but faded away. As he put it, “when I get into my worry session, half the time I can’t even come up with something to worry about.”
In the light of all the logic—indeed, in the light of the unusual clarity of the folly of worry—Jesus seems to ask, So why not take charge of worry rather than let it take charge of you? Effectively managing worry may be one of the most self-empowering gifts you can give to yourself, and it can prove to be a significant step toward vastly improving your self-leadership and your ability to lead others to be empowered themselves.
Transcending worry can unleash the vitality and strength that leaders need to lead themselves and others.