The events of the past couple of years have brought mental health to the forefront of leadership concerns. What once was considered purely “personal business” is now (rightly) seen as something that not only affects individuals, but can have a significant impact on productivity and organizational performance.
We also hear leaders issuing the disclaimer, “I’m not a therapist.” That’s very true. The relationship between a therapist and their client is very different from that of a leader and employee. Even the most “servant leader” oriented boss can’t escape the fact that at the end of the day they’re still “boss.” That power differential makes a true therapeutic relationship impossible.
That does not mean, however, that leaders are powerless to positively influence the mental health of their employees. They can follow the example of the therapist and incorporate some of those qualities into their leadership model.
Walking people through change
Good therapists don’t force change on their clients. They come alongside those they work with and walk them through change. They don’t just prescribe or preach change. They detail the advantages of change and the pitfalls of the status quo. Their goal is to get the client to buy in to the necessary changes and own them for themselves.
Leaders are engaged in a similar process. Yes, you can certainly stay with the “like it or lump it” approach of the command/control model, but that doesn’t produce buy-in. You may see some short-term compliance, but ultimately it produces resistance and resentment. Therapists who work with court-ordered clients face similar challenges. They must overcome the coercive nature of their relationship and get people to accept the change because they see the value, not because they have to do it.
Be curious about motivation
At the core of their efforts, good therapists are trying to understand and help others be aware of what they do and why they do it. They help identify processes that are leading to negative outcomes and work with their clients to develop strategies and better processes to help them achieve their goals. Sounds an awful lot like effective coaching, doesn’t it?
Be aware of how your presence affects others
A good therapist understands the dynamic that exists between them and their client. They’re careful to take into consideration how that impacts the way the client responds and to not exploit the privileged position they have in that person’s life.
As a leader, you too must realize that your team members look at you differently. Albeit for different reasons, they may not be entirely transparent with you (and that’s okay!). You also need to honor your responsibilities to those you lead. They are dependent on you and your ability to responsibly lead them.
Be an empathic listener
This may be the most important quality leaders share with good therapists. Be quick to listen for understanding and slow to offer “cures” or try to solve every problem. Good leaders, like good therapists, help their team members discover the “treasure chest in the backyard” that they might not be aware exists.
And of course, as with all things leadership, “leaders go first.” Take care of your own mental fitness. Let your life be a positive example of healthy margins and attention to forming quality relationships. You can learn more about specific strategies for promoting mental fitness from our panel of experts who appeared on our Fostering Mental Fitness webinar. It’s now available on demand.
About the author
When he’s not working as the Content Strategy Coordinator for The Kevin Eikenberry Group, Chuck Chapman is a Marriage and Family Therapist serving individuals and families in crisis throughout Indiana. He also applies his knowledge and experience working with systemic interventions to businesses and organizations to help them regulate stress levels and build healthier and more productive relationships.