Effective leadership: investing in mental health and wellbeing

If covid has demonstrated anything, it is the critical role mental health and wellbeing plays in leadership. A leader in name only is a leader who is more stressed than a manager seeking solutions from them or who is burnt-out as they attempt to address organisational challenges. Positive MH&W creates the necessary spare capacity that leaders need to manage the competing demands of their many functions. And for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, returning ‘£5 back in reduced absence, presenteeism and staff turnover’*, the business case for investing in MH&W is indisputable. In my blog, Effective leadership: investing in mental health and wellbeing, I offer six ways leaders can think about and approach their MH&W.

* Poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year, Deloitte Press Release, January 2021

Effective leadership. Photos of a tower of fully charged batteries.

1. Effective leadership: conversations with impact

Good mental health is created through our conversations – those we have with ourselves and those we have with others. Like a piece of clay on a potter’s wheel, a leader can use their conversations to sculpt their MH&W into something they like the look of. And the best conversations for this are what I call ‘conversations with impact’, which I define as those with the qualities and characteristics we need to make the difference we are after. By comprehending them in this way, leaders can look to identify the qualities and characteristics they require for their conversations to result in positive MH&W. For example, a leader can ask themselves:

  • What qualities and characteristics do they need in their self-talk?
  • What qualities and characteristics do they need in their conversations with others?
  • What qualities and characteristics do others need in their conversations with them?

While different leaders will want qualities and characteristics that reflect their personality and circumstances, seeing conversations as integral, not incidental, to MH&W can allow them to maintain it in good shape consistently. When a leader’s MH&W deteriorates, this is a sign that their conversations need to change, either by adapting existing ones or finding someone new to talk to.

2. Meaning

Effective Leadership is synonymous with good MH&W, and so anyone in a leadership position needs to know the state of their MH&W on an ongoing basis. Luckily, like all human beings, leaders have an inbuilt system that oversees the degree to which they are thriving and surviving – their emotions. Emotions are messages, a form of communication, sent to us from our ’emotional self’ containing vital information about how well we are doing personally and professionally. What a leader’s emotional self needs them to know is the following:

  • what are the causes of their mental health and wellbeing, for good and not-so-good?
  • what are the resolutions to their MH&W if it is poor, and if it is good, the means to sustain it?

It follows that emotions like stress, depression and burnout are expressions of concern by a leader’s emotional self at the state of their MH&W. In contrast, emotions such as contentment, joy and flow are expressions of confidence. Using the idea of emotions as messages, leaders can get into a dialogue with their emotional self, figure out what they are saying, and give them the answer they want to hear. Achieve this, and a leader will keep their MH&W in good shape.

3. Patterns

There are four types of patterns that underpin our MH&W: patterns of

  • Thought
  • Behaviour
  • Feeling
  • Relating

Positive MH&W, therefore, is characterised by a harmonious relationship between all four patterns, poor MH&W characterised by an unharmonious one. For example, a leader who is flexible in their thinking, calm in their behaviour, emotionally resilient, and interpersonally skilled will positively contribute to their MH&W at work. In comparison, a leader who is rigid in their thinking, unpredictable in their behaviour, emotionally unintelligent, and with poor people skills will lay down the foundations for poor MH&W.

Our patterns reflect who we are – the sum total of our life experiences – and so consistently running our lives based on positive patterns requires good levels of self-knowledge. However, in possession of this, a leader can shape their patterns in ways that create positive MH&W and be the leader they want to be.

4. Acceptance

The state of our MH&W reflects the degree to which we accept who we are, what we do and how our life is. All we can do is accept our current reality, but it is incredible how many leaders struggle with this truth and find ‘imaginative’ ways to circumvent it. While some of these attempts are harmless, others are far more consequential. When a leader parts company with acceptance, they open up what I call a Fantasy-Reality Gap, which is the difference between:

  • Who they think they are and who they actually are
  • What they think they are doing and what they are actually doing
  • How they think their life is and how their life actually is

The bigger the FRG, the poorer our MH&W. Leadership based on large FRGs can only be ineffective, typical examples of which include:

  • Imposter Syndrome
    • The Fantasy is the leader isn’t good enough
    • The Reality is they are
  • Burnout
    • The Fantasy is the leader must work on a Sunday evening for their business to survive
    • The Reality is they don’t

Acceptance is hard because fantasies can be very seductive and come cloaked in the truth, but once this illusion is shattered, acceptance can be seen for what it is: not resignation but the first stage of transformation.

5. Challenge

Finding the right level of challenge in our lives is core to good MH&W. Too much challenge is associated with anxiety and burnout, too little with depression and hopelessness. Given that Leadership and challenge are synonymous, effective leadership necessarily involves careful calibration of challenge. As a coach and therapist, I help leaders achieve this by applying what I call The Goldilocks Principle of Challenge: not too much, not too little, but just the right amount.

There are many ways a leader can adjust the level of challenge they face, but we can boil them down into the following:

  • Change of perception, e.g. this will pass, we’ve been here before and succeeded, what’s the worse that can happen?
  • Change of behaviour, e.g. find a quiet space, talk to a close colleague, brainstorm ideas, and delegate.
  • Addition of resources, e.g. increase level of support, change of timescales, new people with new ideas

Emotions will tell leaders whether they are making The Goldilocks Principle work for or against them. By developing good emotional intelligence, leaders can tune into their emotions and ensure they consistently hit the sweet spot of challenge.

6. Transformation

Effective Leadership requires a significant amount of time-travelling between present and future to ensure organisations are on the right journeys for desired destinations. To ensure good MH&W, leaders need to time-travel for themselves too. The degree of connectedness between a leader’s individual journeys and destinations will play a critical role in their MH&W. When they become disconnected, leaders feel it. For example, burnout and depression can indicate their:

  • Personal destination is an unachievable fantasy that no journey can ever take them to
  • Personal destination is achievable, but they are on the wrong journey for it

Just as they engage in monitoring, assessment and oversight of their organisations, leaders must do so for themselves. Should I continue on this journey, change course slightly or turn around entirely? By understanding the relationship between MH&W and transformation, leaders can ask and be asked these questions by colleagues, mentors and coaches to keep their MH&W in good shape.

Effective leadership: investing in mental health and wellbeing

If you are a leader and have enjoyed my blog, then I’d love to hear from you. My IMPACT Model and IMPACT Transformation Programmes have enabled many leaders to practice ‘effective leadership’ through achieving positive MH&W. To read what some of my clients say about me, visit my Testimonials page.