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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

A reflection on leadership during a global pandemic

I’m getting a lot of questions about how to lead an organization in these turbulent times while keeping employee mental health top-of-mind.

As an organization that makes mental wellness central to our mandate, we’ve always done our best to safeguard staff psychological health with the same vigour we apply to physical safety. 

But only fools would pat themselves on the back right now.

This isn’t a time for self-congratulation. This is a time for self-reflection. And I’ll be honest. I’ve had a lot of time to think because I, too, am practising physical distancing, and I live on my own. 

Normally, my hectic schedule is such that I crave solitude. My scarce vacations are taken hiking in the beautiful aloneness found on mountaintops and canyon basins.

Amazing how quickly that feeling fades when the date and time of your next social engagement is . . . anybody’s guess.

These past few days, I’ve been thinking long and hard about what it means to be a leader right now. Quite frankly, it’s terrifying. 

I wrestled with this admission.

My job is to steady the ship in rough seas, and part of that entails displaying confidence. But confidence in a climate like this is anxiety masquerading as bravado.

In these last few years, this is my hardest-won piece of wisdom: vulnerability is our greatest strength. 

For years I hid my own experience with mental health problems. I was ashamed. Yet, shame stunts our emotional growth and cripples our potential. When we cast it off, we make space for more helpful feelings ꟷ feelings that can guide us toward the truth of our worth, and allow us to make meaningful connections with others.

So my advice to leaders right now is this: do not be ashamed if you are afraid. Our economy is taking a body blow, and our very way of life is being upended. Yet, the first step in leading with authenticity and honesty is to tell your employees that you, too, are afraid.

While shame keeps us silent, expressing our shared anxieties creates space for compassion. It’s amazing what can happen if you ask, “What am I most worried about?”

Naming our fear gives us a problem to solve.

In my own case, I’m afraid of disconnecting with my teams. I’m worried about staff juggling young children and full-time work. I’m concerned that responding to the ever-changing context will burn out our highest achievers.

Refusing to name such fears doesn’t make them go away. It just means they won’t get addressed until they’ve been ignored right into a crisis.

So I ask my own leaders what they are worried about, what scares them, and then I share back. This dialogue is the first step toward creating a plan that anticipates challenges before they’re at the boiling point.

Being a leader isn’t about being perfect. Nor is it about having all the answers.

It’s about being afraid, and being willing to lead anyway. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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