Redefining Strength: How Anxiety Can Be a Leadership Asset

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Marketing Podcast with Morra Aarons-Mele

Morra Aarons-Mele, a guest on the Duct Tape Marketing PodcastIn this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Morra Aarons-Mele. She is the host of The Anxious Achiever, a top-10 management podcast that helps people rethink the relationship between their mental health and their leadership. Morra founded Women Online and The Mission List, an award-winning digital-consulting firm and influencer marketing company dedicated to social change in 2010.

Her upcoming book is called The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears into Your Leadership Superpower where the mission is to normalize anxiety and leadership in today’s workplace. 

Key Takeaway:

In today’s workplace, anxiety is a constant challenge that can hinder the potential for high performance, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There should be no separation between mental health and leadership, and mental health should be normalized in the workplace. Morra shows that anxiety is a part of life, in fact, it is fundamental to leadership, and with the right tools, you can take advantage of its power and turn it into a strength instead of a weakness.


Questions I ask Morra Aarons-Mele:

  • [01:29] So leadership and mental health in the same sentence, can you explain this idea that you’re putting those two topics together?
  • [03:29] What are you bringing to the conversation, that’s gonna help people see anxiety as a strength?
  • [04:43] Do you feel like there is more anxiety today, and if so, what’s causing it? Or are people just more freely talking about it?
  • [06:14] You talk about transforming anxiety from a weakness to a strength. So what’s the process that somebody might go through?
  • [12:06] I once read that if you’re not feeling a little stress, you know, you’re just not trying or you’re not pushing yourself enough. Is there any of that thought in the anxious achiever?
  • [12:53] What physical manifestations are people experiencing because they are not managing the anxiety or the stress?
  • [14:17] Do you think a true leader now should be coaching around mental health? Obviously not providing therapy, but somehow coaching or at least giving people opportunities to be coached?
  • [15:20] Many people in managerial positions who are like me age-wise, are managing much younger people. Is there a real challenge cross-generationally?
  • [18:00] Do you do any work inside organizations? Where would you go to help an organization that’s trying to maybe change its culture?

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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Creative Elements hosted by Jay Klaus. It's brought to you by the HubSpot Podcast Network. The audio destination for business professionals creative elements goes behind the scenes with today's top creators. Through narrative interviews, Jay Klaus explores how creators like Tim Urban James Clear, Tori Dunlap and Cody Sanchez are building their audiences today. By learning how these creators make a living with their art and creativity, creative elements helps you gain the tools and confidence to do the same. In a recent episode, they talked with Kevin Perry about how he goes viral on every single platform. Listen to creative elements wherever you get your podcasts.

(00:54): Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch. My guest today is Morra Aarons-Mele. She's a host of The Anxious Achiever, a top-10 management podcast that helps people rethink the relationship between their mental health and their leadership. You might recall she was on this show for one of the best titles ever Hiding in the Bathroom . But she's back with another book we're gonna talk about today, The Anxious Achiever: Turn Your Biggest Fears Into Your Leadership Superpower. So, Morra, welcome back.

Morra Aarons-Mele (01:28): Thanks, John. It's good

John Jantsch (01:29): To be back. So leadership and mental health, uh, in the same sentence, I mean, is juxtaposed even, are we talking about a bit of an oxymoron here?

Morra Aarons-Mele (01:38): No, we're talking about,

John Jantsch (01:41): I mean, people don't typically think about those two things I know is the whole point of what your, what your work is about. But, so help me kind of work this idea that, that you're putting those two type topics together, you know, intentionally.

Morra Aarons-Mele (01:55): Yeah. I don't think that there should be any false separation between the discussion of leadership and mental health or to that matter, mental illness. Yeah. You know, it's a part of life at anyone's part of life. They will probably experience mental ill health and hopefully mental wellness. Right. It's, it's exists along the spectrum and we all go through it, and it's part of our leadership and how we show up. Sure.

John Jantsch (02:18): I don't disagree at all, but the fact that you're having to talk about normalizing this in the workplace, there's a lot of really built up angst about it, isn't there? I mean, just the, you know, go back a generation and you never talked about mental health issues, right. It's like that was, you know, that was taboo. And so a lot of people are dealing with that baggage, right?

Morra Aarons-Mele (02:39): I, I think so. Even today, you know, we, um, we conflate mental illness or ANGs or depression with weakness, right? We, we conflate it with characteristics that seem to go against what we want our leaders to be and stand for mm-hmm. . And so of course there's no incentive for leaders to talk about their mental health because everyone is afraid that they'll be judged. Right,

John Jantsch (03:00): Right, right.

Morra Aarons-Mele (03:02): And that's the kind of stigmas they're trying to break.

John Jantsch (03:04): Yeah. And I think when we use the term mental health, you know, obviously people go a lot of places with that, you're narrowed in on this idea of anxiousness, you know, which mm-hmm. again, you talked about a spectrum could be in this, not a little of nothing. And the point that you're making is that this is like, this can be a strength, right? I mean that this idea that you're an achiever doing this, so, you know, it hasn't always been seen as a good thing. So how, what, what are you bringing to the conversation? You know, that's gonna help people see that as No, that's a strength of yours.

Morra Aarons-Mele (03:36): I hope people understand that leadership and anxiety go together because , when you're leading, you're going into the uncertain. Yeah. And a lot of anxiety is about facing the uncertain and the uncomfortable, even scary feelings that we have around that. You know, what leader is an anxious Yeah. And indeed, when we think of our, our greatest leaders before battle, when we read history, we understand that they were full of fears and deep, deep insecurities before battle. The key is moving through it and being able to go into battle.

John Jantsch (04:09): Don't you think though, a lot of those leaders that you mentioned, you know, this insecurity came like after the fact, or at least admission of the insecurity came after the fact, but they felt like, no, I've gotta put on the, I've gotta put on the face, you know, and don't you think a lot of leaders take that? Like, I, you know, even though I'm dying inside, you know, I can't let that show .

Morra Aarons-Mele (04:28): Some do, some don't. I mean, when you read histories, for example, of Abraham Lincoln, he walked around with great melancholy and anxiety, and he didn't hide it. In fact, he built a team around him of people who could take care of him even in his lowest hours.

John Jantsch (04:44): Do you feel like there is more anxiety today? Maybe this is just a guess , but more anxiety today? And if so, what's causing it? Or are people just more freely talking about it in it appears that there's more?

Morra Aarons-Mele (04:59): It's, I mean, it's hard for me to know. I'm not a right, I'm not a data scientist, but I do think that when you look statistically, the numbers of people reporting anxiety and depression in this country are overwhelming. And certainly among our young people, we've been through a period which has been really damaging to our mental health. Yeah. And I don't see much that is making our mental health shore up right now. Certainly on a global scale. And even just from a macroeconomic perspective, things are very, very uncertain and scary. And that's when we get

John Jantsch (05:31): Anxious. I mean, and, and we talked about like what we've gone through, but even now, as we continue home, I mean, is that actually making the issue, uh, worse or sustaining the issue? Uh,

Morra Aarons-Mele (05:40): It's hard to know, right? I mean, I think the, the jury definitely is not out there. I think for a lot of people working from home makes their anxiety feel better because they may have less social anxiety. Yeah. Right. There may be fewer instances. On the other hand, anxiety loves a communications vacuum. And when we're all, and we're communicating on slack and strictly in audio, we may have more anxiety because we're not clear on what our counterpart wants. We may feel the need to control and we're micromanaging more. So it's hard to know, but I think there are pros and cons. Yeah.

John Jantsch (06:14): So obviously you spend a great deal of time in the book, not just explaining the people have these anxieties, but transforming them, you know, to being from a, from a what was maybe at one time a weakness, uh, to a strength. So what's, what's the process that somebody might, uh, go through? Because I, you know, I've spent 10 years, uh, meditating just to get rid of stress and anxiety. Uh, and now you're telling me, bring it on.

Morra Aarons-Mele (06:37): No, look, I'm not telling you bring it on. I mean, if, if, if you found a way to dissipate it, amazing. Good for you. Um, you probably have a lot to teach

John Jantsch (06:46):

Morra Aarons-Mele (06:47): Because ultimately what you're doing when you're meditating is you're sitting with thoughts and you're just sitting with them. You're observing them, you're noticing them, but you're not holding onto them.

John Jantsch (06:59): Right? Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Morra Aarons-Mele (07:02): And what has that process taught you?

John Jantsch (07:04): Uh, that reality is far less scary than than, than, uh, the, the assumed, uh, reality, which I feel like is the creation of a lot of anxiety.

Morra Aarons-Mele (07:16): That's right. Anxiety is all about the assumed reality , right. Anxiety is our brain's threat appraisal system going into high gear. On the other hand, our brain may sense a real threat or it may not. Right. And so many of us, myself included, spend so much time anticipating threats Yeah. That we almost forget how to calm down. Right. And then along the way that anxiety becomes our activating energy, it becomes our oxygen. Yeah. It pushes us forward. And we can't separate what's anxiety and what is our true drive for excellence. And it can really, really have intense consequences. And so in the book, I do a lot of what you probably do as a meditator, noticing when your anxiety pops up in what circumstance, how your body feels.

John Jantsch (08:04): Yeah. It probably gets a bit habituated Right. Too. Like we stop mm-hmm. noticing it becomes of when X happens, Y is going to occur in my body or in my head, . Um, and, and so you're right. I, the first step probably is actually witnessing it to some extent, right?

Morra Aarons-Mele (08:20): Yes. And anxiety's tricky. I spoke with someone the other day and, and he said, you know, my anxiety shows up as vertigo, huh. And I was like, wow, that's unexpected. You know, there's a detective work process that you have to go through sometimes because we think that we know an anxiety hits and it's that classic sort of fight or flight and our heart starts racing. Right. But always like that. Right. And, um, the thing that's interesting about work is it gives us a lack. We can pick up a lot of patterns for our anxiety going off mm-hmm. if we pay attention

John Jantsch (08:49): Mm-hmm. . So do you have a framework, if we wanna call it that, to to, to that you're actually can coach you through, you know, here's, I didn't know every individual's front, but do you have, at least for how somebody might go through this transformation to turn it into, as you said, a I think a I think even superpower somewhere,

Morra Aarons-Mele (09:07): , I mean, in this book, I'm not a, I'm not a clinician or psychologist, but I draw on many different schools of psychology and research and you know, I mean, I think that the general consensus, like you said, is that when you feel like your anxiety is getting in the way, the first step is to notice it. Yeah. Really understand how it's showing up, what it's feeling like in your body, naming it, I'm anxious, I'm really anxious before this negotiation, what's going on? And then doing the work to understand it, right? I mean, that is the work that we all do, but it can be really, really illustrative. And in the book, we look at everything from your childhood hurts mm-hmm. , those patterns that mo may go very, very deep to recent job experiences to, again, habits that you get stuck in. You know, so many of us get stuck in what I call thought traps. Mm-hmm. , right? Those negative instant thoughts. When we feel anxious specifically about something that we feel might shame us, our brain goes to a place of, I'm not worth it, I'm stupid, I'm gonna fail. Right? And that becomes a comfortable habit. Perfectionism is the same thing. And so it's really about understanding and playing detective, and then trying to figure out what's motivating the anxiety.

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(11:56): There was a book a few years ago, and I don't remember if it was really even very good , but the title got my attention was called Stress for Success. And the main point that the author made was that if you're not feeling a little stress, you know, you're just not trying or you're not pushing yourself enough. Um, I mean, is there any of that, um, thought, uh, process, uh, in anxious achiever?

Morra Aarons-Mele (12:21): Yeah. I mean, the neuroscience will will show that, right? I mean, we need anxiety. It keeps us alive. So if you are, um, faced with something that you really care about, that you feel might be a test, um, that you feel you really want to take a leap forward mm-hmm. , and there's a risk of failure, of course you're gonna feel anxious. You need to feel anxious.

John Jantsch (12:42): So what, what is the right word? But the, again, a lot of scientific research is really going in body connection. You know, what physical manifestations, you know, are, you know, are people experiencing because they are not managing the anxiety or the stress?

Morra Aarons-Mele (13:03): Well, we like to get into habits, right? Mm-hmm. . And, um, our brain creates habits as a way of hoping to dissipate the anxiety. So a lot of us, when we're anxious, we may go into familiar behaviors, right? A lot of us may reach for a drink, we may reach for Netflix, we may reach for TikTok mm-hmm. , right? Mm-hmm. , we may exercise. Some of our coping mechanisms are what's called adaptive. Mm-hmm. , they help us and some are maladaptive mm-hmm. at work. We also have anxiety habits. We may get into micromanaging. When you're anxious, you feel out of control. It feels really good to try to reassert some control. And that could mean calling your team and bothering them . Right. It could be overwork. And so the important thing is to see how you're reacting to the anxiety and ask yourself, is this really, is this serving me? And that's where the mindfulness comes in again.

John Jantsch (13:56): Mm-hmm. . Yeah. Yeah. Is

Morra Aarons-Mele (13:57): This serving me? And sometimes you might say, yes, I am anxious right now. This is serving me.

John Jantsch (14:03): Yeah. So when it comes to, you talk about leadership and obviously typical leader, you know, manages people. So in some cases, teams or multiple teams. Are we at a point where, you know, a true leader now should be coaching around mental health, even though, you know, obviously not providing, you know, therapy, but somehow coaching or at least giving people opportunities to be coached around it.

Morra Aarons-Mele (14:30): I mean, this is a pretty controversial topic as you can imagine. Yeah. And it's new, it's really evolving, you know, in the field of workplace mental health. I, I say that, um, n no manager or colleague should ever feel like they need to be someone's therapist. You know, that is not your job. There are a lot of programs that are helping, especially managers become conversant Yeah. In talking about mental health. Right. So that you can at least there. But you know, in part of the research for the book, and in my podcast I've interviewed many HR leaders and you know, their general consensus is your job as a manager is to listen and facilitate. So you wanna be someone who's safe to listen to. You don't need to solve an employee who's having a mental health challenge. Right. That's not your job. You can facilitate where they need to go next. Yeah. And I think that that is sort of maybe can help managers relax a little bit. It's not your job to be the therapist.

John Jantsch (15:20): Many people in managerial positions are, you know, look a lot like me age-wise, um, and, uh, they are managing people who look a lot like my kids. Is there a a real challenge, you know, cross generationally? It's

Morra Aarons-Mele (15:35): So funny, every time I say yes, I get people writing into me saying, no, it is not about generation. , you know, I think it's really, really individual. Yeah. There are many people of certain ages who've been through a tremendous amount of therapy and their own healing journeys. Yeah. And another thing that's interesting that I have heard anecdotally is that people who are, who have power tend to be more open and more willing to talk about things like mental health. Mm. And people in the start of their careers as well. It's the people in the middle. Yeah. The people who are just holding on for dear life. Right.

John Jantsch (16:12): And this is just like another black marker possibly. Right. Well,

Morra Aarons-Mele (16:15): This is just something they just, they just feel overwhelmed by because they're in the climbing phase of their career. They probably have a very busy home life.

John Jantsch (16:22): Yeah. Yeah. I have just anecdotally maybe millennials, maybe Gen Z, you know, tend to just be much more open about it. I mean, so the stigma appears to be gone of saying, you know, on, on Facebook, you know, my therapist said, you know, which Oh yeah. 20 years ago, you know, would've been somewhat, you know, it would've been with your girlfriend and a couple glasses of wine maybe. But that's about it. Right. Um, so is that, is that just a social change or is that, you know, a positive change for, for good in, in the entire issue?

Morra Aarons-Mele (16:55): I think it's hugely positive. I mean, I wish everyone could have a therapist. I think it's a truly remarkable experience. And obviously there are a lot of barriers to getting good mental healthcare in this country. Yeah. Um, but I love, I love when people are open to talking about the road to self-awareness the same way they would as developing any other skill. Because what this comes down to is self-awareness as a leader. Yeah. And self-awareness is one of the most sought after an elusive leadership characteristics. Yeah.

John Jantsch (17:25): I've often said, I think it's the, it's the, you know, super powerful leadership. I think, you know, because that, you know, where people really, when when people struggle with that, you know, then they give people answers and they , you know, they try to hold on to power themselves and you know, not, you know, not give it out. I mean, the most self-aware leaders wanna rise everybody up and they want, you know, they wanna share, you know, with the team, which are all I think very positive, you know, types of things.

Morra Aarons-Mele (17:52): Yeah, yeah. For sure. So

John Jantsch (17:55): If, if, if somebody reads this book and they're a leader and they say Morra, we'd love to work with you. Do you do any work inside of organizations? Um, because this is, this might be hr, has certainly might be leadership, it's definitely culture side of organizations. So where would you go to help an organization that's trying to maybe change the culture, not just an individual leader who's trying to get better?

Morra Aarons-Mele (18:22): I mean, this is really about culture change, you know, and I think the good news is as leaders change, culture changes, I don't think that this kind of reduction of stigma around mental health in the, in the workplace should be seen as a perk or a nice to have or something we're doing for the Gen Zs to keep them happy.

John Jantsch (18:38): It's an AppRight or something, right? . It

Morra Aarons-Mele (18:41): Is actually foundationally about working better mentally healthy workplaces Sure. Work better. Absolutely. Where people, you know, have boundaries and treat each other kindly and can have open communications. I mean, it's kind of the, the shangrila that we're all looking for. So all of this stuff is actually foundational to anything you'd learn in a basic leadership or seminar. Right.

John Jantsch (19:02): But as you just pointed out, particularly when it comes to culture, that's not something that you put on a plaque. I mean that, you know, that's gotta be, you know, that's gotta be lived and it's gotta be lived a lot and it's gotta be repeated and um, you know, before people believe it. Especially if you're trying to make a change. You know, I mean, I think that's the hardest part. You know, you've grown to 200 people and you know, they have accepted the organizations a certain way. Um, you know, changing that, you know, is really difficult, isn't it?

Morra Aarons-Mele (19:32): It's absolutely. I mean, that's the thing we're all working on. That's why podcasts like ours exist. Yeah. Yeah. . But, you know, I'm not, I'm not saying that change has to start with a single person because we all live in systems, but I do think if you're feeling anxious at work and it's getting in your way it's worth looking at. It will lead you to a path of discovery.

John Jantsch (19:51): Yeah. If nothing else, you'll be happier. Right? ,

Morra Aarons-Mele (19:54): That's, well, there you go. .

John Jantsch (19:56): Well, Morra, it was great having you back on the show. You wanna invite people where they can find, I know the book will be available everywhere, but, uh, where they might connect with you as well.

Morra Aarons-Mele (20:04): Absolutely. I'd love it if you listen to my podcast, The Anxious Achiever, wherever you get your podcast. And, um, if you have a question for me, reach out on LinkedIn and I'll write back. Just send me a message.

John Jantsch (20:14): Awesome. Well, again, thanks for taking a few moments to stop by the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, and hopefully we'll see you one of these days soon out there on the road.

(20:19): Thanks.

(20:20): Hey, and one final thing before you go. You know how I talk about marketing strategy strategy before Tex? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that, what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the Marketing Strategy Assessment. You can find it,, dot co. Check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketing I'd love to chat with you about the results that you get.

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