17 May 2021 17:34 IST

Safeguarding the emotional wellbeing of leaders

Allowing vulnerability and authenticity in leadership is pivotal to protecting leaders’ mental health

We have all had a tough 2020. This year is proving to be equally challenging. Just when we thought that the worst of the pandemic was over and the optimism over vaccines started rising, the second wave of the pandemic hit.

We experienced the ‘come-back syndrome,’ when most organisations were trying to make up for the lost ground in 2020 by setting ambitious targets for 2021. While there has been extensive coverage about organisations re-hiring, undoing salary cuts, and releasing incentives, some organisations were going through silent restructuring which barely featured in the news. Re-structuring might be the need of the hour. There have been learnings from the previous year, that despite challenges, must be implemented to keep the show going.

‘Hot seat’

Amid all this, leaders play a pivotal role. Leaders are uniquely positioned, where they are accountable for driving business results and setting priorities while ensuring that the employee morale and performance are high. They are accountable to the board, stakeholders, and employees. They are constantly in the hot seat. Every decision and communication of theirs is open to interpretation and will be judged by all — team members, media, and stakeholders alike.

Think about their emotional well being and mental health? This chapter of the pandemic and dealing with it was never a part of any leadership development journey, and leaders are learning on the job too, and coping with the evolving challenges as they go along.

Employees and teams look up to their leaders for recognition and appreciation, psychological safety, and clarity of communication. In this ambiguous and challenging environment, who do leaders look up to? The buck stops with them. Every decision and restructuring exercise requires serious deliberation and the stakes are high. Seen as a bearer of bad news, often the blame rests at the leader’s feet. In such situations, who takes care of the leader’s morale and emotional wellbeing?

Leaders are expected to be available 24 by 7. The role demands it. The business demands it. A leader is supposed to have solutions to problems that others don’t have answers to. Have we ever appreciated our leaders for being there for us and for having our back? Leaders are under intense scrutiny as teams and employees are quick to judge but rarely take a moment to reflect on the grit and determination it takes for a leader, who also must have had a salary cut, experienced work-related insecurities, and still continued to put in long hours to ensure business continuity.

Skin in the game

There is a lot researched and written about the impact of leadership styles on the wellbeing and morale of team members. There is very little research done on the wellbeing of leaders themselves. For the longest time, leaders were expected to behave like ‘bullet-proof tanks.’ It is only recently that vulnerability in leadership has been acknowledged.

Being vulnerable isn't a bad thing and it doesn't make you weak; it actually makes you a better leader because you stop wasting energy protecting yourself from what you think other people shouldn't see. It allows you to start showing your authentic self.

Everyone — whether a leader, a manager, or a team member —  is first and foremost a human being who needs appreciation and support from time to time. A lot has been spoken and written about employee wellbeing, employee experience, let’s also consider leadership wellbeing and experience this year. They, after all, lead us to success and their wellbeing cannot be compromised. It is critical for the organisation to take cognisance of how to enable them, help them build emotional resilience and psychological safety during turbulent times. Also, if we as team members expect our leaders to take care of us, can we as responsible team members, take care of them?

(The writer is Founder, Managing Partner, Marching Sheep, an HR advisory firm.)