Finding The Courage To Care

Daring Greatly plain

I wanted to publish this article on World Mental Health Day.

I am a big believer that mental health is everyone’s business, especially if you are a leader in business today.

In Australia every single day:

  • 3 people die on our roads
  • 8 people die from suicide
  • 30 people attempt suicide

Research by Beyond Blue found that whilst 91% of employees believe that it is important to work in a mentally healthy workplace, only 52% agree that their workplace fits this description. Given that 45% of Australians will suffer from a mental illness at some time in their life, this means that many of the workplaces of Australia are failing to fulfil their duty of care. A recent AIA Healthiest Workplace Survey found that 50% of Australians were suffering from at least one dimension of work-related stress. According to OfficeVibe 42% of employees believe that their leadership does not contribute to a positive company culture.

It is very clear that far too many people are suffering. It is time for workplaces to step up and play a much stronger role in supporting human flourishing. Workplaces have the opportunity to become a significant source of wellbeing for the world’s population.

This week the Australian Federal Government announced that businesses will be a key focus of an independent inquiry into mental health. The Productivity Commission will investigate the impact of mental health on the Australian economy and identify the ways workplaces can better support people living with mental health conditions.

The Health Minister Greg Hunt said;

“We know that with 4 million Australians being affected by mental health conditions every year, the workplace can be an absolutely central point for identifying, for helping to provide support and for helping to provide recovery,”

The challenge?

It will be impossible to achieve the scale of organisational change required to shift the status-quo without many more leaders finding the courage to embark on their own individual journeys of personal growth and change.

 Michael Bunting sums this up beautifully in his book The Mindful Leader;

“Transformation is the territory of true leadership. The work of transformation takes no special talent or skill. But it does take an uncommon determination to face our fears, reactivity, avoidance patters and insecurities and keep going. It takes strength.”

Johann Hari’s ground-breaking research has identified nine underlying causes of depression. All nine causes have something in common – they are all forms of disconnection. In his words “ they are all ways in which we have been cut off from something we innately need but seem to have lost along the way”. In his book The Lost Connections Johann explores; disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from nature, disconnection from a secure future and disconnection from status and respect. He also investigates the links between disempowerment at work and poor mental physical and emotional health. All of these lost connections are lurking causes of poor mental and physical health in our workplaces.

To achieve the shift required, leaders must create stronger connections with those they lead and work with. Stronger connections are forged when leaders find the courage to be vulnerable.

Most organisations today have a strategic aspiration to be a great place to work. However, in my experience many leaders don’t have the courage to ask – to REALLY ask – how their people are feeling and to ask how, as leaders, they could be doing a better job at supporting their people to thrive and perform at their very best.

 Why are we afraid to ask?

  • We are afraid we won’t know what to say if we get an honest answer
  • We are afraid we won’t know what to do if a colleague discloses something they are really struggling with
  • We are afraid that the conversation may demand that we take off our own masks and reveal something of own personal struggle
  • We are afraid we won’t have all the answers and that we won’t be able to “fix the problem”
  • We are afraid that we won’t be able to have an honest conversation whilst also holding the leadership party line that our organisation is a “Great Place To Work”

These fears are real. None of us have all the answers. None of us are perfect.

But our people already know that.

Our people want leaders that they can relate to. They want to feel a connection with us that is grounded in our shared humanness our shared imperfections.

They don’t expect us to “fix their problems” or “have all the answers”.

What they do expect is that we will listen. That we will guide. That we will be open. That we will have the ability to show empathy. That we will find the courage care enough to put our own ego and fears aside and open our hearts.

A big part of great leadership is being aware of the things you don’t want to hear and the things you don’t want to talk about – and finding the courage to lean into the most difficult and most challenging conversations.

You can’t manufacture moments of courage, but you can practice courage so that when the moment demands, you will be ready. Also, courage is also contiguous, so when you show courage in your leadership, others will follow. You can learn more about ways to practice courage in the book “The Power Of Moments” by Chip Heath & Dan Heath.

In addition to practicing courage, it’s about having both the tools and the awareness to identify when someone needs help and then supporting that person to take the necessary steps to get the help they need.

Of course I am in no way suggesting that leaders should be therapists.

I am suggesting is that part of the reason only 13% of the global workforce is engaged today is because many of leaders have avoided the hard, honest conversations. I am also suggesting that as leaders we have an obligations to know our people well enough to be able to pick up on small changes in behaviour and that we must earn the trust of our people so that they feel able to speak up when they are struggling.

Where Can You Start?

When we become open to new ways of leading, we will discover that there are loads of great tools available to support us.

Dr Brene Brown’s Leadership Manifesto is a great resource.

dare greatly maifesto

I also love Brene’s video on empathy that reminds us that we can only create a genuine empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.

Being humble is also important. Humble leaders gladly accept the role of learners because they know it will make them better.

Of course in order to find the courage to care in the moments that matter, you need to be vigilant about your own wellbeing. Your own cup needs to be full. As leaders we need to get much better at putting our own oxygen mask on first and learn to take better care of our ourselves so we are capable of adapting and thriving through change & challenge. We must role-model wellbeing and prioritise self-care without apology. I wrote this article “Thriving Leaders Are The Nucleus Of Thriving Organisations” recently on RU OK? Day to explore this topic is some more detail.

In my opinion, another ticket to entry for cultivating courage is to have a good awareness of our relationship with our thoughts, so practicing mindfulness is also key. We each have between 25,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day and around 85% of our thoughts are negative and around 95% are repetitive. So basically, we all have old stories and self-limiting self-beliefs playing on repeat day after day. Developing the ability to respond (instead of react) to our thoughts is essential. The Indian guru Osho was really onto something when he described the human mind as a beautiful servant but a very dangerous master. I explore the topic on mindfulness in the context of leadership in this article “The Mind: A Beautiful Servant, A Dangerous Master”.

In order for our a leadership to adapt and evolve, we must also consciously shed some of the conditioning of our past. In the past, leaders were rewarded mainly for “head smarts” – being logical, calculating, experienced, knowledgeable, authoritarian, data-based decision makers. I believe that leaders of today need to make important decisions first with their heart, (through the lense of compassion, values and integrity), then use their head to figure out the “how” (using logic and creativity) and harness their gut courage and instincts to execute. This is explained in the article ‘Neuroscience and the Three Brains of Leadership’ by Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka;

“ Without heart intelligence, there will not be sufficient values-driven emotional energy to care enough to act on or prioritise the decision against competing pressures […] Without head intelligence, the decision will not have been properly thought through and analysed. […] Without gut intelligence there will not be enough attention to managing risks nor enough willpower to mobilise and execute the decision once challenges arise.”

I explore this topic further in the article “Leading with Head, Heart & Guts”.

We each have the opportunity to experiment with different ways of being and to refine new ways of showing up – really showing up – for the tough conversations. There is no one-size-fits all. We need to play around with it and refine an approach that feels authentic.

Sure, we will occasionally stuff it up, however (in my experience) when you truly open you heart, people will forgive your human stumbles. However, if you remain trapped in your head and keep your heart closed, you destroy trust.

Several years ago, I had a manager who gave me the following feedback during my annual performance review: “The problem with you Cassie is that you care too much. If you want to progress to an executive position, you really have to learn to care less”. He did not deliver this feedback this in a patronising or mean way. He genuinely felt he was sharing his secret to success with me. Fortunately (thanks to the via tool) I knew my strengths – zest, honesty and kindness. So, for me, trying to “care less” about work is about as realistic as trying to hold a beach ball under water for 40 hours a week. Armed with this self-awareness, I was able to respectfully reject this advice. I actually felt really sorry for him. Yes, he was “successful” (if you measure success by a big salary and a top-rung position in the hierarchy), but the people who knew him well knew that the things he really cared about was his own status, title and material possessions. He was not trusted and so the people who worked for him never really brought their full potential to bear. Last I checked he is still climbing the corporate ladder, flying closer and close to the sun, but I wonder – at what cost?

If you are a leader in business and you are reading this, I encourage you to dare greatly today, and every day.

The business world desperately needs more leaders who are willing to take off the mask, who are willing to dig deep and to who are willing to find within themselves the courage to care. 

When we really connect with others, when there is vulnerability and trust – we unlock our collective potential and extraordinary performance become possible.

This article was inspired by Allan Sparkes. Allan’s tremendous courage and extraordinary leadership has been a huge source of inspiration for me. Allan is a Cross of Valour recipient and the Deputy Commissioner for the NSW Mental Health Commission.


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