Every now and then a book comes along that is so “right on” that I can’t resist the impulse to pass it on. A number of years ago, one of those books was Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, by the late Edwin Friedman (Guilford Press, 1985).

 

The title admittedly sounds dry; most of us would prefer to spend an evening with The Da Vinci Code. But Friedman’s book changed the way I thought about my life and work.

 

          Let me share with you what I found to be the book’s most memorable insight. Friedman, a Washington rabbi and family therapist, called it the “Non-Anxious Presence.” The theory goes something like this: When, in any organization — whether a church, a synagogue, a family or a company — the level of anxiety goes up, a leader can respond either with a higher or lower level of anxiety. Responding with higher anxiety only escalates the tension. But when the leader exhibits a lower level of anxiety, coupled with caring and responsiveness, the overall level of anxiety decreases.

 

          Let me give you an example. When I am on an airplane and we hit turbulence, who is the first person I look to? Without a doubt, it is the flight attendant. If the attendant is chatting with passengers, serving food and looking generally relaxed, I can relax. But if the flight attendant looks panicked, I panic. The attitude of the flight attendant either escalates or de-escalates my level of anxiety. I need the reassurance of a non-anxious presence.

 

          Some years ago, I heard John Chancellor, the former NBC News anchorman, speak about his career in TV news. We had the opportunity to ask questions, so I asked: “In all the years of following world leaders, what have you learned about leadership?” Without hesitation he answered, “I have come to believe that the most important single characteristic of a leader is reassurance.” Recalling his days of reporting during the era, he said that after a half-hour of cataloguing the atrocities and ugliness of war, he always felt a responsibility to end his broadcast with some message that subtly said, “Yes, it’s been a rotten day … but tomorrow will still come.”

 

          Think about this gift of reassurance and the power of the non-anxious presence. When all about you, people are losing their heads, and you keep yours, your calm response may be your greatest gift.

 


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.