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Mental Health and Leadership

Posted by Alexandra Van Rijn on

Hello again, WYL Fam!

I am incredibly lucky to go to a school that allows students to have incredible flexibility and responsibility in their leadership positions. Through this, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of student leaders on campus who have dealt with mental illness or either poor mental health for extended periods of time.

When talking to them, many echo the sentiment that their poor mental health invalidates their capabilities as a leader. 

They worry that it makes them less fit for the job, less suitable as a leader and somehow less deserving of being in highly important roles. 

This could not be farther from the truth. 

Now I want to start by saying that I am definitely not saying dealing with mental illness is a requirement to being a good leader, but there are many great leaders where this is the case. I want to bring forward the idea that dealing with mental illness or poor mental health can actually make someone a better and more capable leader.  

This idea has been talked about recently in books, in Forbes and in the Wall Street Journal, and I think there’s many reasons for this.

The first is that struggling with mental health makes you more used to tough times. Leaders have an incredibly challenging job of being in the spotlight, dealing with a lot of the pressure and having to make tough decisions that people may dislike them for. Being a leader can put a lot of emotional strain on you. 

 

Celebrate the courage it takes to fight. It is strength. It makes you capable. It makes you human. 

By having experience dealing with poor mental health, leaders may be more used to this emotional burden and consequently be more cognisant of how their body and mind react during tough times. Being emotionally self-aware can be an incredibly powerful tool for leaders, allowing them to better deal with adversity. On top of this, these individuals are often better at recognizing their own faults, which means they’re always (whether they realize it or not) striving for improvement and humility as leaders.

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Secondly, being open about your mental health can make you more approachable and relatable. While some may view it as a weakness, your best (and most empathetic) team members will understand it as strength. It takes a lot of time and effort to handle mental illness. Being able to handle that while being a leader shows how capable you truly are, and is a feat worth celebrating. 

These leaders may also be more comfortable reaching out when they need more help. Unlike very prideful leaders where this can be a shortcoming, reaching out early can be beneficial for the team and allow them to manage adversity better. 

In addition to this, some specific illnesses may have very niche benefits that I want to talk about. Individuals with ADHD may be better at picking up subtle social cues, while individuals with anxiety may have an incredible ability to be detail oriented and ensure each facet of a system is working well. In Ghaemi’s book First Rate Madness which explores mental health in past leaders, he talks about how depression may prevent a ‘false-positive’ optimism in leaders, giving them a sense of realism that is advantageous.

Having a sense of realism can help you be more aware of the subtleties in a situation that overly optimistic people may miss. 

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I think the most significant reason dealing with poor mental health may lead to better leaders is through empathy. At the core of all great leadership is empathy. Understanding your team dynamics and how to best utilize each person’s hopes, passions and skills is what makes teams work really well and is what great leaders can do. 

All of the great student leaders I have seen are those that are incredibly empathetic and understanding - and this makes a lot of sense. If you understand people and can put yourself in their shoes, you’re going to be better at knowing what motivates them and what makes them resilient. You’ll know how to work with them and how to make them excited about the projects they’re working on and that’s going to really bring out their capabilities. 

So for all the leaders out there who are worried that they can’t call themselves a leader because of their mental health – you can. Your mental health does not invalidate your capabilities. If anything, you are a better, more empathetic person and leader because of your strength in fighting poor mental health. 

Until next time,

Paul 

 

Written by Queen's University Campus Rep, Paul Barber 

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