Leadership in the Age of Panic

Leadership in the Age of Panic

                       By: Allyson Mallah and Casey Reason

Panic – A sudden, uncontrollable fear or anxiety, often causing unthinking behavior. (Webster’s dictionary)

The Age of Panic-We are living in an age of panic. Panic is the currency of 24/7 news organizations as they undergird their headlines with neon red warnings. Panic is the news alert on your phone or the text message typed in all caps. Panic is the overwhelmed colleague or coworker who storms in to see you, hoping you’ll join his or her panic parade. While some people succumb to panic innocently, others gin up the panic to create leverage—and anxiety for all.

Panic and a Noisy World– At any given moment there’s a fierce competition for your attention. Cable news, satellite radio, twitter, texts, Facebook (live or otherwise live), e-mails, and calls. As these entities spark and bark for your attention, leaders may struggle to find time for the most important moments—like face to face, thoughtful contact, or personal reflection (Reason, 2011). The bottom line—in a noisy world that fights for your brain space, fearful forces tend to grab our attention. As a result, more than in the past, we have a stressful, needy, noisy world around us.

Panic Pushers and Panic Buttons– Due to our neurological tendency to respond to things that are fearful, pushing the panic button gets people’s attention. Sadly, it also adds to high levels of stress and can push your neurological system into fight or flight– a condition that allows us to fight for our lives but doesn’t add to our thoughtfulness, good health, or longevity. Furthermore, some people get addicted to that fear and panic and happily drink the panic Kool-Aid every day. They become panic dealers or pushers who delight in sharing the panic by spreading gossip that’s jarring or recanting stories in a way that titillates our fears. In a world with so many ways to communicate, panic pushers know a lot of ways to push the panic button.

Why do panic pushers push panic buttons? Panic Pushers very quickly find out that you can get people’s attention by pushing the panic button. As a result, being a perpetrator of panic gives you power. Being the first one to run into a room and yell fire makes you the hero and gives you control. In an odd, neurological chain of events, surviving fear also satiates endorphins (Bosco, 2007). To that end, some people are addicted to panic because it gives them an endorphin high.

The downsides of panic buttons, panic-pushers and a culture of panic– If you believe you work better in a panic state, you’re wrong. While panic may satiate your engagement, it also has a tendency to push your brain towards solutions that are based on survival, not creativity or contribution (Goldsborough, 2009). If you are a leader interested in helping your organization work together to be at their creative, thoughtful best, a culture with an undergirding of panic will only diminish their creativity, add to anxiety and stress, and ultimately bring fatigue and heighten the chance of failure.

Four Things Leaders Can Do to Innovate in the Age of Panic

The goal of any leader should be to create a culture driven by the direct, rapid, and continuous pursuit of meaningful innovations. To help make this happen, here are four things leaders can do to avoid the debilitating, derailing impacts of panic.

#1-Hold a “hide the panic button” ceremony– Before you dismiss the idea of establishing a ceremony to purposefully “hide the panic button”, keep in mind that many of the most creative companies take very specific, demonstrable steps to shape or change the habits and culture of a system. It is extremely helpful to have a direct and purposeful a conversation about the impact of panic and fear on the organization and the need to repurpose those energies wherever possible towards attention and engagement. Be bold and direct. Engage in the conversation and put panic in context. Here are four things you should commit to in a “hide the panic button” ceremony:

Hide the Panic Button Commitments

We right-size our challenges– Don’t downplay your challenges. And don’t make them worse. Don’t build up a boogeyman and don’t pretend your challenges will go away. Right size those challenges and get to them, right away.

We don’t panic, grow– If you are facing a difficult challenge, grow into the type of individual, team or institution strong enough and competent enough to deal with it. Rather than making apocalyptic predations in the face of a challenge, ask this. . .how can we grow to meet this challenge?

We see we in every challenge– There’s nothing that makes us panic more than feeling naked and alone. So get dressed and stand together. See problems or challenges, no matter what department or sector in the organization they live, as “we” problems that everyone owns.

We will be fine– Don’t you always feel a little better when you remind yourself that this too shall pass? Or a reassuring voice tells you, everything is going to be fine. So far, haven’t they been right? Panic doesn’t get you closer to any answers and believing you’ll be fine is the first step in being fine.

#2-Confront Panic Button Pushers– Panic button pushers must be called out. This can be done with grace by simply suggesting that refraining from panic is a helpful step. It can also be done rather directly, even in intense moments by reframing the conversation and refusing to engage in panic driving dialogue. If panic pushers are seeking power in the group by inducing panic, it’s important to intervene and push thoughtfulness or resourcefulness rather than panic. Be bold and direct.

#3-Create a dynamic, courageous, creative culture—over panic- Have you ever felt in love, and full of hate at the same time? Have you ever felt bold and courageous and at the same time paralyzed with fear and unable to move? I hope the answer to those questions was no. Psychologists and human performance experts tend to agree that while we have complex emotions at times, we don’t typically feel two incredibly intense and opposing emotions at the same time. Therefore, if you’re in a state of panic you’re probably not going to be in a state of courageousness until you change your state. Teams or organizations that share a courageous climate simply spend more time feeling and sharing courageous emotions.

Therefore, one of the most powerful things you can do to avoid a culture of panic is to create a culture of hope, or innovation, or curiosity. Culture in an organization is created by the actions we take and the words that we use. Brave, creative, grateful organizations do things and say things that are brave, creative, and grateful. Angry, toxic, and panic pushing organizations say and do things to support that culture as well. The key for leaders and the teams they work with is to get really clear about what you want and then take very specific action to create a culture you hope to enjoy and share a consistent basis. To get there, consider answering the leadership challenge below.

Avoiding Panic and Finding Purpose
Two Questions and the actions that follow:

  1. What emotions best describes the kind of culture we need and want in our organization?
  2. What specific, measurable actions can we take to practice putting this culture to work?

If your organizations said that we wanted gratitude and courage to be the emotions that were dominant within your organization, we would challenge you to identify what specific, measurable actions could you take to demonstrate gratitude encouraged. What steps could you take to build gratitude and encourage muscles? Perhaps you can take small steps and accumulate some experience in working together in a way that was grateful and courageous. Brass the small steps would lead to bigger and better outcomes. Suffice to say, while practicing gratitude and courage, you won’t have much time to push the panic button.

Conclusion-Push a Different Button

Here’s hoping this article helps you recognize that we are living in an age of panic, where using fear to get our attention is commonplace. Using panic and fear will only debilitate the creative forces around you and dilute the efforts of creative people. Instead, call out the importance of hiding that panic button, confront those panic pushers, and courageously design the kind of culture that will allow your organization to work at its creative best! So don’t push the panic button. Push the courage, hope, and pride buttons. And keep pushing them moving forward.


  • Bosco, F. (2007), Emotions that build networks: Geographies of human rights movements in Argentina \
    and beyond. Journal of Economic and Social Geography, 98(5), 545-563.
  • Goldsborough. R. (2009). A New Year’s resolution: Battling information overload. Republic relations
    tactics, 16(1), 15.
  • Reason, C. (2011), 100 Days to Leadership Impact. Triple Nickle Press, 2011.
Leadership in the Age of Panic

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