In the previous article we posed four questions around the impacts depression can have on leadership. In this second part, we will take a look at each of those questions in more detail to explore themes of leadership.

Statistically, somewhere between 5-10% of people in the population are depressed or will experience it during their lives. There is little research available which specifically investigates how depression impacts people in senior management. If we include anxiety and stress along with depression, some studies show the proportion of leaders acknowledging these conditions at points in their career is typically somewhere between 50-65%.

Depression as a concept is familiar to us all, but of course there is a spectrum of different severity and symptoms. Many of the areas we will cover apply equally to short periods of low mood as they do more serious episodes.

A potential elephant in this room is the fact that you probably can’t lead well when you’re depressed, not really. One common problem executives face is their own self-expectation to “fix” the problem, and fix it quickly.

 

How can we be authentic when we have lost our belief?

A common symptom (or perhaps cause) of depression is where we lose our sense of purpose. Our anchor is loose, and others will see us drifting on the tide. This will usually manifest itself in our behaviours and the language that we use over time.

We may still do and say broadly what we always have, but it becomes much more of an effort. We have lost our authenticity and we may be seen as a hypocrite.

There is some deep psychology at play here when we start thinking about beliefs and identity, which is why this aspect can be difficult and time-consuming to work on.

Finding that anchor is vital though if others are to attach to what we’re trying to achieve as an individual or an organisation.

 

How can we inspire others when we lack energy, self-esteem and hope?

When we are depressed, we can easily be seen as the office Eeyore, or an emotional Dementor to others. People will often avoid contact or engagement with others who threaten to bring their own mood down. After all, everyone has problems, right? Who needs a mood hoover?

Usually when people consider a leader, that individual offers solutions to their problems and brings emotional commitment to their beliefs. Our ideal or most respected leaders are often representative of some deep held personal value system and are a living embodiment of them. They offer confidence and conviction and can communicate a vision of a desired future state.

Of course, inspiration is a subjective thing, but if we are down and diving deeper, if we can’t see our own future and can’t easily find motivation, we are unlikely to inspire anybody.

What kind of language do we use – is it actually negative? Have we become someone who finds a problem to every solution, rather than the other way around? What about our intent, and our body language?

 

How can we be trusted if we distrust others?

Trust often lies at the core of our interactions with others, professionally and personally. It’s a tricky one.

Paranoia, withdrawal, rejection of others are very common aspects of depression. When depressed it is common to feel betrayed by others – individuals or groups. We often see it when it’s not there, and will avoid situations where it might be.

If we’re hurting and vulnerable, we will tend to put effort into avoiding the risk of making it worse. Sometimes we need to recover our strength before we can risk being let down again; or maybe sometimes we need to reflect & learn more about ourselves before we risk letting others down again.

One could argue that the leader’s particular duty is to trust others as a matter of some faith rather than evidence, and that’s a challenge even in fair weather and when on top of your game.

If a leader goes into situations in a state of distrust, it is highly likely there will be self-fulfilling prophecy as the other person infers the lack of trust and responds in kind. Someone who doesn’t trust you will in fact become a potential danger to you.

Trust is usually the top answer of desired leadership traits when we ask leaders what matters to them. If you have lost it for yourself and for those around you, it will have significant effects.

 

How can we support development in others without a solid foundation for ourselves?

If we consider Blanchard’s “Situational Leadership” model, and “Turn the Ship Around” by David Marquet, their view is that we achieve high performance organisations through developing new leaders.

We facilitate a culture which supports effective decision making at all levels, and allows for managed mistakes to be made & learned from.

Perhaps their perception is that they are just too busy (or important). Perhaps they sense a threat through the promotion of others, and so they don’t have a clear WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?). Perhaps their own ego, or their need to be needed, supersedes any concepts of grand organisational development.

Perhaps they just can’t care about those other people at this time.

Whatever the case, a leader who is depressed has even less bandwidth with which to consider the needs of others. Our window has become opaque and reflective of our own self, looking back at us.

 

In the final blog of this series, we will take a look at some practical steps which may help address these areas, and signpost you to some other resources which might help either yourself or a colleague who is struggling to lead through depression.

James Willerton

Associate tutor of in>Professional Development