Leadership & Productivity

Why CEOs should embrace their own mental health struggles

7 min read

29 January 2019

Sarah Niblock, CEO if UKCP, argues that business owners who have run the full gamut of emotions benefit from heightened ‘people skills’ and a greater capacity for compassionate leadership.

When I joined UKCP as CEO, I knew that the E in my job title must stand for emotional as much as executive. That’s because our staff, members and partners are looking to me daily as the mood barometer for the whole organisation. 

In a tight-knit office environment, my mindset is going to permeate the feelings of everyone on our team. That’s why I believe it behoves leaders and senior managers to manage their inevitable roller-coaster emotions like ninjas in the workplace.

That’s no mean feat given that half of entrepreneurs questioned in a recent survey reported struggling with a mental health condition. Believe me, all CEOs experience anxiety with some, such as the bosses of Lloyds and Virgin Money, famously speaking out.

But here’s the thing: being the organisation’s figurehead comes with enormous privileges and also the non-negotiable responsibility to role model the culture and values of the workplace 24/7.

Despite running the leading body for research, education and regulation of psychotherapists, I realize my argument seemingly goes against the grain of current thinking that we should all be sharing our mental health issues openly at work. But hear me out.

There are times when we don’t come to work at our best but you cannot simply arrive at the office and complain about your bad night’s sleep or adverse workload.

Those days more than ever, we need to be able to control and indeed embrace our emotions to avoid negative consequences.

What do I mean by embrace? Well, it’s those heightened sensitivities that are actually behind the gifts and talents of so many leading lights.

Creativity, indefatigable passion and risk-taking are some of the qualities that distinguish bold leaders while at the same time plunging them into the emotional highs and lows that come with success and failure. And it’s bloody exhausting.

My idol Prince, who was a phenomenal manager and leader at his studio as well as a rock icon, could only sleep four hours in every 24 because he was constantly awoken by new ideas.

You are in the driving seat because of your conviction that your idea was the right one. You’re running fast because you’re responsible for so much but that pace can obscure you to the chaos that’s left in your wake.

The good news is that your extra-human ability is an amazing foundation upon which to build incredible self-aware, compassionate and charismatic leadership. But you can’t just switch that on. It has to be learnt in order to self-manage competently.

The skills that got you to the top aren’t what’s needed for leadership. As a manager, you have to stay open to new information and experiences while also demonstrating strengths like empathy, inquiry and emotional regulation.

So what can you do?

Many boards give new CEOs a coach as a sounding board in their early days, but I think they would do far, far better to allot them a psychotherapist.

Psychotherapy enables CEOs to develop the emotional self-awareness that’s crucial to effective leadership.

We cannot begin to exhibit and role-model empathy, self-regulation or teamwork unless we know our own true feelings and triggers, not least how our daily actions and reactions are borne out of what might have happened in our childhoods.

A global study by the University of Pennsylvania found that leaders who improved their emotional self-awareness reported a significant improvement in workplace effectiveness.

Making time – as little as an hour per week – for deep self-reflection and honest dialogue will make a massive impact on the overall success of your organization by unlocking your potential.

What I liked about those bankers’ approach is that they channelled their very personal experiences into creating mentally healthy workplaces. They looked within and asked themselves what they were being that their work culture was lacking.

If you’re a leader who has run the full gamut of emotions and has engaged in personal therapy, you’ll benefit from dramatically enhanced ‘people skills’ and a great capacity for innovation and compassionate leadership.

Being a self-aware, compassionate leader doesn’t mean you aren’t a tough cookie, quite the opposite. It means you’ll bring out the very best in your team because they know you have struggles but have sought mechanisms for managing them.

Here are five quick wins for embracing and channelling your heightened emotional awareness into healthy workplace practice:

1) Being respectful and honest to employees: share your feelings by all means with your most trusted colleagues but always, always talk about how you are dealing with them.

2) Behaving consistently and calmly around the team: tough love time – this is non-negotiable, which is why you need mechanisms such as psychotherapy for healthy venting.

3) Being thoughtful in managing others and delegating: don’t project your stress and anger onto others.

4) Listening to, meeting and consulting with the team: be open to feedback, create mechanisms for staff comments, and accept all constructive criticism with gratitude.

5) Be available and sociable: being present for your team and learning to listen non-judgmentally is one of the greatest gifts you can give to your organisation.

Professor Sarah Niblock is chief eExecutive of UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP)