How to lead when you’re depressed?

Almost all leaders will face periods of crisis, trauma, pressure or doubt in their career. There is a trend towards greater awareness of mental health issues in the workplace, but stigma remains.

 

To lead can be a difficult thing at the best of times, but what does a leader do when they’re low themselves?

Leaders have a very specific expectation upon role, a set of responsibilities not only to themselves but to those around them. The needs of their followers and colleagues don’t alter when the leader is feeling low, but we know that all leaders will struggle at times.
There is a long list of traits that our delegates say they look for in leaders. Which include:

  1. Authenticity
  2. Inspiration
  3. Trustworthiness
  4. Develops others

Focusing on these key traits, we might consider how depression can impact them and then look at ways we can mitigate those impacts.
Whilst these traits are not completely lost when the leader is depressed, displaying them can become a greater challenge. We can disappear down the rabbit hole all too easily and lose our perspective, making us feel lost when others are looking to us to provide direction and clarity.

  • If we lose our belief, how can we be authentic?
  • Should we lose our energy and hope, how can we inspire others or describe the future vision?
  • If we’re struggling to support ourselves, how can we give support externally?
  • Should we become paranoid and distrust others, how can others trust us?
Imagine yourself looking through a window.

It’s a bright, beautiful, sunny day. You see the world outside; the colour, the trees, the tones. As night falls, the sun fades and we put on the room light. Gradually the reflection of ourselves appears in the glass, until that is all we see and we’re unaware of the outside. What once acted as a window now becomes a mirror.

This can be how our perspective changes when we become depressed. The deeper our depression, the deeper our sense of introspection and rumination becomes, and we lose contact with the “big picture”.

Sometimes we dissociate from the very people who rely upon us the most, and this emotional position makes it extremely difficult to lead effectively – at home or at work.

 

It might seem obvious that we know when we’re depressed, but here are some occupational symptoms of depression which can indicate that all is not as it should be:
  • Pervasive feelings of isolation.
  • Consistently negative feedback from others (perceived and real).
  • Looking to find clouds for every silver lining.
  • Ruminating; being unable to let things go.
  • Consistent usage of derisory terms and language.
  • Sleep issues: struggling to hold a sleeping pattern and being troubled by dark dreams.
  • Knowing what you need to do but being unable to do it.
  • Escapism and compulsive behaviour (drugs, alcohol, gambling etc).
  • Becoming overly aggressive or seeking to avoid situations rather than deal with them.
  • Irrational or obsessive consideration of what others are thinking or saying about you.
  • Difficulty in appreciating the position of others, or jealousy over our perception of their lot in life compared to ours.

Of course, depression is a broad term which covers both general low mood and clinical, long-lasting and embedded symptoms. Wherever a leader might lie on that spectrum though, one would expect to see some impact on their ability to be authentic, to inspire others, to be perceived as trustworthy or to develop others.

 

The first step is in recognising and accepting the truth of your own state of mind, the consequences of inaction, and critically the impact it has on others. 

During the course of these blogs we hope to assist those of you dealing with this issue (for self or colleagues), by raising awareness and signposting actions and resources which may help illuminate the world outside.

The next blog in this series of three will look in more detail at how depression can effect these four key leadership, and in the final blog we’ll look at some of the actions that can be taken to help, and some links to additional resources.

James Willerton

Associate tutor of in>Professional Development