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.


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