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Leadership in the Ages of Anxiety

Tuesday, Aug 16, 2016 Category Education

​​Why Impact Anxiety is Holding Leaders Back from Changing the World and Three Ways to Overcome It

by Natalya Sverjensky
If you are mission-driven like I am, at some point you have probably asked yourself a troubling question: am I making an impact?

Whether you work as a campaigner, nonprofit leader, social entrepreneur, corporate intrepreneur or in another role, “mission-driven” people are called that for a reason: we are determined to leave a lasting and positive impact on the world. Changing lives keeps us up at night, not changing investor perceptions. We want to make a real and meaningful difference, not just make a short-term profit.

This desire to make an impact motivates us, but there is also a dark side to it. I call it “impact anxiety”. These are the feelings of disappointment, frustration and even anger that result from the pressure of trying to make big change happen – and these feelings come from within us. Almost always, the deepest source of impact anxiety is a fear of failure. When you ask yourself “Am I actually making an impact?” what you are really asking is, “Am I a failure?”

I often joke with my peers, fellow Within Partners, clients and mentors about impact as the so-called “I-word”. But I increasingly believe that impact anxiety is a mindset that is holding many of us changemakers back from achieving our goals.

That is because impact anxiety can quickly lead to burnout, and even a culture of fear – where the need to change the world trumps personal growth and development.

We live in an age of impact anxiety and it is time for mission-driven leaders to acknowledge it – because changing the world starts with changing ourselves.

Here are three ways to start overcoming the impact anxiety you feel, and get back on track to making an impact.

Be clear on your role in making change happen

Climate change. Poverty. Pollution. Mission-driven leaders tend to focus on big picture issues that are complex and demand systems change. The dark side of working at this level of ambition is the disappointment we feel when we can’t see if we’ve actually moved the needle, even after decades (or more) of action. This disappointment can rapidly become cynicism. The bitter disillusionment felt by campaigners around the world following the UN COP15 climate talks in 2009 is a perfect example.

Avoiding impact anxiety starts with bringing real clarity to your purpose. Purpose is not the same as sustainability. It is a powerful tool for reframing the way you think about your role in change, because it demands you ask this question: who do you exist to serve? Nearly every purpose we hold up as deeply inspirational is about people in some way. A great example from the non-profit sector is Raleigh International, one of Within’s clients – “We exist to create lasting change through youth”. Finding this clarity has allowed Raleigh to bring focus to their strategy and to look at impact measurement in a more effective way.

Putting people into the picture makes sense for mission-driven leaders, because all changemakers need to work with others to make change happen. The realization that impact is about the journey we are on with others, not only the destination, has been a major lightbulb moment for every changemaker I have talked to about their purpose recently.

People are more than a means to making change happen. Find the humanity in your purpose – and find a clear role for yourself within the complexity of the wicked problems you are driven to help solve.

Find your people

Purpose is intimately connected with the people you engage with. This means that impact anxiety shows up if your community is not aligned with your purpose. When the people you connect to do not believe in your impact, it creates a negative feedback loop that can make you doubt your credibility and worthiness as a leader.

The leaders I work with who struggle to engage their communities tend to be making one of two mistakes. The first is to try to be all things to all people in service of their impact – instead of letting purpose be their guide to community. The second is to default to focusing on senior decision-makers who they believe have the most influence and authority to create change. More often than not, I find that these senior leaders tend to frustrate changemakers. This is because those with influence and seniority are mostly interested in protecting what they already have – not in taking the risks to change it.

Your community is your tribe. These are the people that energize you to fulfill your purpose because you can build meaningful and lasting relationships with them. For example, this is Within’s community.

To define the community that is most authentic to you, look at the people you engage with today and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Can you be yourself with them? We are at our most creative when we feel safe to show up as ourselves. ​
  2. Do they believe in your purpose? If you have to mitigate why you do what you do, you are not engaging with the right people.
  3. Are you genuinely excited by the impact you can create together? There are plenty of organizations, institutes, causes and events that can take up your time. Choose to engage with the people who are working on issues that truly interest you.

Find your people and you will find a pathway to your purpose – and stay true to the impact you stand for.

Manage your own energy

Ever suffered through a meeting where people passionately argued over each other, with no resolution? Impatience is a common feeling for leaders who care about big picture change. We want to see progress, and we do not have time for anyone who stands in our way.

The dark side of this is the impact anxiety that shows up in that impatience. It is a feeling of frustration that can turn some leaders into control freaks or worse (for women across the board, expect to be called “abrasive”).

The most powerful tool for dealing with frustration and impatience is what we call “managing your energy” at Within. It is a coaching technique that means having the self-awareness to shape how you react to and engage with others.

This is key to overcoming impact anxiety because when you manage your own energy, you unlock your ability to manage the energy of others. You know you are doing this when you feel calm enough to listen more than you talk.

Managing your energy starts with asking yourself three questions:

  1. What kind of leader am I? Think through what leadership means to you. Hint – it is not management.
  2. How do I manage my own energy? Reflect on how you balance your energy throughout the day.
  3. What types of energy do I bring to situations? Notice the way you engage, what changes when you are in different environments and how this effects the outcomes of your interactions.

Mastering this leadership skill is critical for all changemakers. We need more leaders who empower others with the confidence to make change happen – and that means managing yourself first.

Impact anxiety is not the only thing stopping leaders from making an impact. But it is by far the barrier that we, as individuals, have the most power to overcome – through purpose, community and managing our energy. Because when we choose to lead with these three qualities, we just might change the world.

​Have you or a leader you know ever experienced impact anxiety? If so, what has helped overcome it? Share your stories, thoughts and ideas here and with me at

Jewyla LynnNatalya Sverjensky is a partner at Within People and is based in the Bay Area. Within is an international partnership that helps people find purpose and grow. Natalya works with organizations across the public, private and third sectors, supporting their leadership teams to reconnect with purpose and embed it in their culture for the long term.​