Hero leaders are failing everywhere!

Leaders are facing huge pressure, which is taking toil on their mental health, says Stuart Rimmer, founder and head coach at Inner Mountain Coaching (www.innermountaincoaching.com )

A couple of years ago now, I was driving back from another late evening executive board meeting; it was the end of a 70-plus-hour working week and lists of unfinished jobs whirled around in my head.

The business was going through huge transformation. Revenue challenges, costs rising, banking and loan issues, regulators intervention, changes in the senior team; and disruption to staff through necessary, but rapid, change.

My headache was pumping and the fatigue was extreme: tiredness hung behind my eyes and thoughts began to quickly tumble out of control. My fingers started to tingle, my breathing got shorter and I was overwhelmed by a flood of emotions – of fear, sadness and helplessness.

I pulled over on a dark, deserted rural road, placed my head against the wheel and fought to get myself back in check. After 10 minutes of “box-breathing meditation”, it passed. It was the third time that month that this had happened.

Working in a senior role in any large organisation means that you are subjected to a false, ongoing narrative of heroic leadership that we as leaders keep clinging to, and some other staff do, too.

Some leaders often ignore the warning signs.  Even when not feeling psychologically at 100 per cent leaders are ‘meant to be strong’. I often speak to coaching clients for the first time when they are stood on this psychological edge.  

I have campaigned over many years now about the need for a clearer approach to mental health in the workplace.  I have coached many leaders in resilience, stress techniques, wellbeing strategies. I have a good understanding of positive psychology, cognitive behavioural therapy and its benefits.

Such knowledge and techniques can create a depth of understanding and approaches to care of self and others, and can provide some armour plating, but they are not superpowers. We all must admit we are vulnerable.

The definition of stress relates to an emotional strain resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances. Everyone has the capacity and capability to weather a single storm, but their ability to do so begins to look doubtful amid a relentless and sustained hurricane that is unpredictable and fierce.

I have spoken one-to-one with many senior leaders who have all individually reported concerns about their own wellbeing and mental health. They report very high stress, bursts of fear and anxiety, and depressive episodes.

This is spoken about quietly; in hushed tones, they talk of the physical symptoms and early warning indicators of poor mental health and distress. Most sectors are also guilty of generating its own pressure: CEOs acting against other CEOs; the sector’s delight and schadenfreude in weekly “public press beheadings”; and fake scandal or rumours of another leader leaving the sector because “they can’t take the pace”.

Poor mental health now seems to be the acceptable hidden cost of leadership. It is present among all, or at least most, job roles, but is especially acute among leaders given their isolation.

Serving as a leader in any complex organisation is an absolute privilege. I have found colleagues who are driven, focused on delivering the best, have a role of community or eco system influence.  But would I now recommend the job to a friend? Probably not.

The analogy of a ship’s captain is well rehearsed, as we weather the perfect storm. But right now, most captains are not in a ship, but are either set adrift in a leaky lifeboat or, worse still, are in the cold, choppy water.  In these positions, the tactics must change and become about urgent survival. Business losses always feel very personal to leaders and the emotional effect is clear. There will always be pressure at work – it’s an issue of quantum and sustainment.

What happens when your best efforts simply aren’t good enough to keep pace with a sector that’s rocking on its heels, like a boxer punched cleanly on the jaw and who is knocked out, but too stupid or stubborn to lay on the canvas? When is it time to fight versus get up and walk away?

It’s time to seek help, get your tactics and to open up a conversation in your sector of work.

Define your self-care package: when things get tough, have a set, planned routine to look after you across the physical, emotional and spiritual zones. Seek sanctuary in this routine.

Celebrate the small victories: keep moving forward and keep a weekly achievement log. Remember the zen kōan:“Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, then it’s found the stone.”

Be present: work on being focused on what’s in front of you. Meditation and deeper breathing can help hugely.

Pay attention to the physical: even small amounts of exercise, remembering to eat, sleep, and cutting out caffeine and alcohol can help.

Find balance: rather than the working day being the be-all and end-all, ensure you do one thing outside of that – it instantly helps to  get out of “work mode”.

And if you struggle to do any of the above on your own…then get a coach! www.innermountaincoach.com