Uncertainty and Anxiety: Recognising a Stressed Population


In my role before founding STEER, I ran a leadership consultancy for 10 years. We used to advise organisations from corporate multi-nationals, to government departments, to charities, to schools.

In fact, STEER was founded with the aim to develop the same leadership capabilities in young people during their formational years. To ‘steer’ is to navigate the unpredictable challenges of the road ahead of you. To signpost others as a leader, you must first be able to steer yourself. The ambition of STEER is not simply to reduce mental health risks in young people, but to build their mental health strength.

So what lessons may we draw about how we, as school leaders, can signpost this uncertain road for colleagues, pupils and parents?

Times of fear, apprehension and uncertainty are moments when a leader has one simple priority task to fulfil. Until she achieves this, nothing else can be done. That task is to contain the emotion around them.

Neurologically, when the brain experiences fear, a region called the amygdala is triggered. The resulting release of adrenalin and cortisol swamps the higher-order rational decision-making circuits, triggering quicker, more instinctive responses. Evolutionarily, the response makes sense. Being in danger is no time to hang around.

The amygdala is the lens through which to understand leadership in times of anxiety. Under threat, uncertainty or risk, any population will experience a surge of cortisol and adrenalin. Just this last week on holiday abroad, a fellow British holiday maker commented to me how ‘we are all just constantly stressed in Britain right now’.

My judgement is that the British population have experienced sustained anxiety over a period of at least two years, resulting in persistently heightened collective cortisol and adrenalin levels. Sustained higher cortisol levels has a number of health risks: it depresses the immune system and increases blood pressure, reduces sleep quality and impedes happiness. Heightened adrenalin, over time, leads to adrenalin depletion and suppression- which we experience as fatigue, burn out, lethargy and low mood.

I have no clinical data to evidence my point, but my sense is that, at large, this represents our broad, national, collective psychological state. For some, Boris Johnson offers a welcome catharsis to the low mood; to others, he only heightens the sustained stress.

If you are prepared to accept my albeit cursory broad-brush analysis, then it can inform the kind of leadership which is required right now. Here are my five essential tactics which I believe are essential to be an effective leader at a time such as this.

  1. First, contain the emotional dysregulation.
  2. Second, provide clarity and predictability.
  3. Third, increase confidence.
  4. Fourth, create optimism.
  5. Fifth, build capital.

In the following five Thought Pieces I will unpack what I mean by each in turn, starting with how we can contain the emotional dysregulation.