Leadership Wellness: The Conversation No One is Having

Leadership Wellness2

Being a Manager might just drive you crazy. I know, because it happened to me.


Leadership hazards

In 2014, I became a manager and an unexpected perk of the job was how it impacted my mental health. My anxiety spiked, I experienced bouts of sleeplessness, I became preoccupied with work and my moods became unstable.

I was stunned. I signed up to lead my teams, guide projects and inspire greatness. I didn’t expect that my life would feel like a Billy Joel song:

“You may be right I may be crazy But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for…”

I found support by sharing my story with other leaders and entrepreneurs. In turn, they shared their stories of sleepless nights, stress, loss of confidence, cynicism, and a lack of time for family and other life-giving projects. I now think of leadership as being a little like schizophrenia: we have to develop “a thick skin” while also staying emotionally available to our staff and our families.

Leadership may be hazardous to your mental health

My experience made me wonder if I had missed the WARNING clause in my employment contract:

Grunge Warning Sign_Nicholas RaymondLeadership will impact your emotional, physical and spiritual health. These impacts may be situation-dependent or more cumulative. The impacts will be intense and you may experience one or more of the following: lowered self confidence, an increase in cynicism and a loss of faith in the system and in mankind, isolation, stress, and an increasingly sedentary work life. Just know that we won’t talk about the effects of leadership openly. Instead, we will change the subject and use words like time management, self management and even emotional intelligence. Your mental health will never be discussed. But know that we care. The Management.

I recommend that you talk to your legal department and recommend this warning statement in your leadership handbook. Then watch how they respond. They will ask you if it is a joke because they know the joke is on you. Leadership mental health can not be talked about openly.

The leader’s mental health: Our personal Voldemort.

VoldemortAccording to Google, a Leader’s mental health may be a figment of her or his own imagination.

I completed a Google search using the phrase “How does leadership impact our mental health.” My search produced several interesting hits:

  • How does our height impact our mental health (#1 hit). Mental health and height? Apparently the further our heads are from the ground, the better our mental health? Never saw that one coming.
  • The impacts of social media on mental health
  • Diet and mental health
  • Mental health and work
  • Leadership in an evolving health care system

What struck me about this search is we expect leaders to lead others who have mental health needs. But the leader’s own mental health is our personal Voldemort: it shall not be named.

Break the code: How do Leaders talk about their Mental Health?

In my conversations with leaders about their mental health, I realized that we use code when we talk about mental health. Code words allow us to talk around the topic without having to say the words leadership mental health.

The Leaders Mental Health Code Book:

  1. We use Geek-Speak rather than real words. We talk about economic principles, fiscal outlook, year to year comparisons and opportunities.
  2. We use business words rather than feeling words: stress, change weariness, sick time and pressure are more fun to talk about than crying, curling up a ball, screaming, or the voices inside of our heads.
  3. We talk about opportunities and obstacles. These are code words for power, stress, anxiety, pain and failure.
  4. We use triangulation and projection. We talk about your Mental Health instead of my Mental Health.
  5. We avoid. If we have to talk at all, we describe how busy we are rather than how we feel.
  6. We talk a lot about “Management,” rather than mental health: Self Management or Emotional Management. Mental health management is something we do for other people, never for ourselves.
  7. We become task focused. We talk about things that need to be fixed because we can do something about that.
  8. We become passive aggressive. We break things so we can fix them. We drink a lot, eat a lot and we send memos.
  9. We try to accomplish things. We initiate projects so that we have something to do. We change something because being busy is better than slowing down to think about how we are doing.
  10. We hold more meetings when really we want to say to someone, “Hold me.”
  11. We avoid the difficult people, those who have needs and who put the Suck in Success (http://leadershipvacuum.com.)

If you use code to talk about mental health, you are not alone. At  times, most leaders have had to dance around the topic. What is unusual is that you are willing to learn more about it. At the Good Men Project, we are having the conversation no one else is having about Leadership Mental Health.

Join us.

This is part of my ongoing series on Leadership Mental Health. For more, click here.

Keep it Real

GMP Be the Change

Photos Ashley MacKinnon, Nicholas Raymond, and smswaby adapted from cliff

About Sean Swaby

Sean is a writer in the areas of mental health and addiction, family, leadership, and anything that demonstrates the power of story. You can find him at smswaby.wordpress.com and on Facebook, here. In addition to being an Editor with the Good Men Project, Sean has been published with Babble, The Mighty, Be You Media Group and Addiction Unscripted.


  1. G,
    I do see that some bad people do get into management positions and they can do significant damage. My goal is to reach the manager and the leader who is aware of their needs and desires to make a positive difference

  2. I respect your viewpoint, Mr. Sean Swaby, sadly, though it seems that too many bad people have taken over management positions in both the private and public sectors for the last 35 years.

  3. G,
    Thanks for speaking your mind. Some Managers can be like you describe and that is an abuse of the position. My experience is different where my managers have been generally good people, trying to make the workplace a better place. That is my context and that is where I write from.

  4. I don’t have any sympathy for people in management positions when all they like is the money, perks, and the power that goes with it and never get punish for the way they bullied their workforce and then have the gall to complain about how hard their job is and don’t take their duties and responsibilities of being a manager seriously except to use their position as another springboard for their next job.

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