Can we channel our stress and fear into something positive?
Dr. Daniel Friedland arrived at the board meeting feeling raw and out-of-sorts after an argument with his teenage son.
Danny* was the board chair of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine. It was the morning of the second day of a combined board meeting with another leading organization in integrative health. The goal of the meeting was to formalize the upcoming collaboration of the two groups.
The leader of the other organization started the meeting. Right away, something seemed off. The vision his fellow leader was sharing seemed very different from what the combined task force had discussed. Danny looked around the table seeking support. Instead, the other board members seemed delighted and engaged, Danny writes in his book Leading Well from Within: A Neuroscience and Mindfulness-Based Framework for Conscious Leadership.
“I have to stop you!” Danny exclaimed, interrupting his fellow leader. “This is not my understanding of what the task force discussed!”
“What don’t you understand?” the other man said, clearly irritated.
Danny’s heart thumped in his chest. He could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead. His mind scrambled for an eloquent response. Instead, he stammered, “I still don’t understand. What exactly are we talking about here?”
Danny sensed the vagueness of his question seemed to increase the confusion and heighten the tension around the table. He looked over at another task force member: “This wasn’t what we discussed during our Executive Committee call, was it?”
The board member seemed perplexed. His memory was entirely different from Danny’s.
Now feeling betrayed and alone, Danny insisted, “I still don’t understand the arrangement you are proposing and cannot move forward with this until we are clear.”
The other leader was now angry. “I don’t understand what you don’t understand!”
Danny tried to counterattack, but his brain was scrambled with fear. “This was no longer about me serving as a leader,” he recalls. “This was now all about me saving face.” Someone whispered, “Please make this stop!” The other leader called for a break.
Walking out of the room, Danny felt “intensely disoriented and nauseated,” he remembers. “In the space of ten minutes, I had just single-handedly derailed a partnership that had been months in the making. I had also undone much of the trust I had built up as board chair. What had just happened?”
Fortunately, Danny knew exactly what had happened. As CEO of SuperSmartHealth, he trained business and healthcare leaders in Conscious Leadership. “I recognized how ironic it was that my day job was spent working with leaders of other organizations about how to consciously lead in times of stress, yet here I had been reacting unconsciously, overwhelmed by stress, fighting for control.”
Slowly Danny’s awareness of the moment returned. He recognized he was in the grip of fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt. Rather than becoming “more stressed out about being stressed,” Danny recognized how his “amped-up energy” could be re-directed to help him lean into the challenge of what to do next.
He intentionally called upon the practices he taught other leaders. “I began to calm myself with a number of slow, deep, heart-centered breaths and brought a sense of tenderness and kindness to the tension I felt in my body. I then silently prayed for guidance, asking how I could best serve the group.”
Back inside the room, Danny spoke up: “I am sorry that my fear got the best of me and for inviting this darkness into the room,” he said. “Yesterday, we spoke about the importance of constructively engaging each other, speaking our truth, and avoiding the pitfalls of destructive conflict or, worse yet, artificial harmony.
“Well, here we are in this moment of conflict. More important than any of the issues we face is how we will constructively engage each other right now to find healing and trust in the face of our conflict.”
Danny took responsibility for not having checked in with his task force to get an update on the latest discussions. He explained that, more than anything, he wanted clarity around the overall alignment of the group. He then checked in with each member of the task force to ensure each felt good about the direction of the vision.
“Feeling connected to something larger than myself, I felt my ego release its grip,” writes Danny. “I regained a sense of my higher self, connected to service and purpose.”
His fellow leader thanked him. The uncomfortable silence in the room was now replaced with relief, laughter, and chatter. The work continued.
“In retrospect, I have come to truly appreciate this crisis of leadership. As painful as it was at the time, it was what I needed to learn,” Danny writes. “It transformed my theoretical understanding of what I teach about Conscious Leadership into a truly lived, real-world experience critical to my own development.”
Reflection: Does this story remind me of a time when I lost my cool in a meeting or in discussion with someone?
Action: Journal about precisely what I remember. What triggered me? How did I react? How did things turn out? What lessons did I learn?
*Danny was my friend, mentor, and business coach. He passed away after a yearlong battle with brain cancer on October 30, 2021.