Leadership Vulnerability and the Interplay with Mental Health

May is Mental Health Awareness month. After over a year of a global pandemic that included the loss of loved ones and jobs, illness, quarantines, children not in school, and even the more trivial of back-to-back video meetings for many, mental health awareness has likely never been as important of a topic for all of us as we enter our “next normal”.

In 2021, a new word has come into our regular vernacular and many popular press articles have been shared on it to explain many of the feelings we are encountering: LANGUISHING.

Languishing, as defined by Adam Grant in a recent NY Times article, is “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” Many leaders and employees are feeling this dullness, even after the excitement of receiving their vaccinations. Indeed, in almost all of my recent client interactions with executives, I have yet to be in one that didn’t describe how hard this past year has been on them and their employees and many of my coaching clients have confided in me this feeling of languishing.

However, a word that I strongly believe needs to come more in the forefront in order to encounter the effects of Languishing and even Mental Health is that of VULNERABILITY.

The formal definition of Vulnerability isthe quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed.” In many organizations, there remains a pervasive attitude that leaders must be strong and unwavering, and therefore, the risk of the exposure vulnerability assumes is to be rejected at all costs. Yet, vulnerability is exactly the type of strength leaders need to demonstrate now more than ever. When a leader perceives they must remain tough and project infallibility, it models to the staff that there is no room for anything other than constant focus.

In order to bring vulnerability more to the forefront with yourself as a leader and with your teams, I encourage you to think about three pieces:

  1. Awareness of yourself. Vulnerability means admitting you don’t have all of the answers, and asking for help from your team when you need it. This type of vulnerability means that you are aware of your own competence, capabilities, and capacity and can lean on your team to fill any gaps.
  2. Awareness of your team. Pay attention to your team and changes in behavior. Open up the dialogue not by simply saying “how are you doing” but instead going deeper when needed by saying “What’s been on your mind recently?” or “Is there any type of support you need right now?”. These types of questions can help open up the dialogue and a safe place for your employees to be vulnerable and share.
  3. Awareness of the synergy. Vulnerability is a two-way street. Allow your team to be vulnerable with you. When they share something personal or a challenge, really listen and ask how you can help support. Even if they are just feeling “blah” (i.e., languishing), letting them know you hear them and that you are a resource for them. And the same goes for you as their leader. Many leaders don’t recognize the importance of sharing some of the challenges you may be facing. It may provide the ripe development opportunity for your team to lean in and take over something that is weighing on you and give them the boost to be excited about their work and out of the languishing factor.

Mental health has historically been something not often discussed in organizations or has been seen as taboo or more of an “HR issue”.  However, as this past year has demonstrated, it has become something that leaders cannot ignore, and it must be recognized and addressed more holistically than ever before. Not only is it the right thing to do for their team members, but it is the right thing to do for their businesses. With the World Economic Forum reporting that by 2030, the global costs of mental health problems will total over $6 trillion, by creating awareness of vulnerability with yourself and your teams, you allow mental health the space it deserves to seek resources to support and overcome.