Leaders are supposed to be right and strong and resilient and … perfect. But what if they are not!!!
The other day, I was speaking to a professional acquaintance and I was taken aback to see the kind of pressure she was under. I asked her how she had been, and I saw that she was close to tears and her voice was quivering with pent up emotion. She started speaking tenuously about the challenges she was having with her boss who was putting her down at every opportunity and making her feel inept and incompetent. Seeing a naturally gifted professional like her so disheartened and in state of abysmal confidence got me thinking. I asked her more questions about the boss that she reported into. When I heard the details – I told her “He sounds bi-polar”. While I said it to make her feel better, I realized that there might be some truth there.
That evening as I was headed home from work, I reflected about the times that I have been tough on my people – sometimes unduly so. I tried to analyze the state of my mind when I responded harshly or seemed unreasonable. In an epiphany I realized that my state of mind more often than not impacted the way I interacted with people around me. The fact that what happens in our heads can impact our leadership effectiveness is simple enough to understand – but are we prepared to face the ramifications of this truth.
I have seen leaders grapple with life changing events like the death of a child, a divorce, becoming an empty nester. I have seen them wrangle with realities like an unhappy marriage, a child not doing well at school, ill health of a parent and a new incompatible boss. I have been privy to their inner feelings of insecurities, fear and frustration. And yet these leaders have trucked on. Irrespective of how brittle they have felt on the inside – they have worn their battle armour each day and continued about their work. While their resilience is commendable – I have also seen the cracks appear. What we as leaders are not cognizant of, is how our mental wellbeing impacts not just us but also the entire teams we lead and the organizations we are a part of.
It all starts with us being aware of our own mental health. What are the markers for mental wellbeing? Blood reports, X-rays, CT scans and MRIs tell us about our body and we very seriously pencil in our executive health checkup once a year. But where do we gain awareness about our mental health. How do we go about understanding something that we have no markers for? Over the last 30 years, I have gained insights into my own fears and insecurities. I have understood what my anxiety markers are and what will knock me down. While these are a great start to developing awareness, they are still very gut led. Holistic mental health checks are critical for leaders who drive large teams and big businesses. After all, “The acknowledgement of a single possibility can change everything.”
As leaders, very often we end up posturing and masking our true selves when we deal with people. Leaders find it easy to speak about their increasing cholesterol levels or their expanding waist size, but I have never heard a leader say that he or she is prone to anxiety attacks or that they can go into a downward depression spiral when something happens to their loved ones. What is the narrative that is being fed to leaders – is it about being the omnipotent and without flaws – a super hero who prevails over every adversity and problem that comes their way. Or is it about accepting that we don’t have all the answers and we won’t be the smartest person in the room, and we are as human as the next person. Beyoncé puts it so beautifully when she says – “The reality is that – sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose. You’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens” It is fine for leaders leading in these turbulent times to be open with their vulnerabilities and foibles. After all these are fodder to making a better leader.
Most leaders become the “go to person” for their teams and their organizations – the defining question to ask here is – who is their “go to person”? According to a study done by a leading Insurance company, at 64% of senior leaders suffer from mental health issues. Organizations need to support high trust groups where leaders come through for each other. The human resources function kicks into action when someone is hospitalized – what are the processes in place for someone who is on the brink of a breakdown or whose stress levels are causing mental incapacitation. In this fast-paced world, where social media rules, leaders need to forge an authentic network of mentors, guides and confidantes. This is a network that needs to be nurtured and nourished and is one that is far more valuable than the names in our phone contact list or the friends we make at conferences. As a leader it becomes imperative to have this support network and if you don’t have one, it is never too late to build one. Sometimes when you are in a dark place and feel that you have been buried, you need a supporter to show you that you have actually been planted.
Today’s leaders are never offline – technology keeps them online all the time – late night conference calls, an overflowing inbox, the need to be seen on social media are all the realities of being plugged in. The pressure keeps building up and this constant being on the technology treadmill wears them out mentally. Sleep is becoming a rare commodity with our screen time increasing by alarming levels. I remember about a decade ago, that I used to flaunt the fact that I needed less that 4 hours of sleep every night. The one thing about growing older by 10 years is that you receive some amount of default wisdom and today I see the value of the words of the Dalai Lama when he said that “Sleep is the best meditation”. The healing effects of sleep are many and specifically for the mental wellbeing. Leaders need to sleep a full quota to be able to heal their angst.
As leaders, we need to guard our mental health with a ferocity that rivals a tiger mom. We need to keep checking ourselves for mental health issues. Our mental wellbeing will become an exponential multiplier in driving our organizations and teams to success. And maybe once in a while, it will be worth our while to pencil in a Psch eval as well!!!!
This article was originally published at LinkedIn