The Invisible Battle: 3 Steps to Succeed in Leadership While Battling Mental Illness

The topic of mental illness is one that makes most cringe and seek to change the subject. Unlike a normal physical injury, mental illnesses have a history of being seen as a sign weakness or looked at in a shameful manner. One who suffers from anxiety, depression or a/multiple forms of OCD understands the complications of trying to explain to others just how draining it truly is. The reason for this is because mental illness, unlike physical, does not come with a wound, bruise or scar visible to the outside world. Therefore, when a victim tries to explain their symptoms, they may be thought of as crazy, weak minded, or simply feeling sorry for themselves. Thankfully, the outlook on mental illness has been drastically changing during the better part of the last decade. More and more people are confessing to their struggles with it than ever before. This is because the idea of being mentally ill is becoming less and less of an embarrassment and touchy subject due to the vast number people who claim to be affected in one way or another. That being said, the amount of people who are suffering doesn’t seem to be decreasing any time soon. It is becoming more and more of a trend to see prominent, accomplished individuals confess to their mental struggles. This begs the question: Is it possible to succeed in a leadership role while dealing with a mental illness? The fact of the matter is, succeeding in any leadership role is enough of a challenge by itself. Those who do not suffer from a form of mental illness still face two daunting battles in route to successful leadership:

1) Effectively leading oneself
2) Effectively leading other individuals

In order to become an effective “self-leader”, one must first embrace the concept of to sacrificing short-term pleasures for long-term success. On top of that one must commit to personal development and find the motivation within to acquire a goal-oriented mindset. This process is hard enough for one with a healthy functioning brain. Once they have succeeded in self-leadership, one must be able to develop the necessary social skills and character traits in order to connect with, inspire and earn the respect of each individual within their following. Only then have they put themselves in position to truly succeed in a leadership role. When one is lucky, the battle stops there. However, many face a 3rd, even more grueling challenge. The battle of mental illness. While this battle thankfully isn’t fought by everyone. It is certainly coming into play for more and more individuals. One might argue that the battle of mental illness is related to the first battle (effectively leading oneself). However, when you really break it down, it is clear that they are two totally separate entities.

As touched on before, the battle of effectively leading oneself, deals with personal development and a commitment to a greater cause based on a strong personal foundation and motivation-driven goals. This battle takes on the assumption that mental illness is a non-factor throughout the self-development process. Understanding that, this means those who suffer from mental illness have double the struggle. They must find a way to effectively lead themselves while also fighting the even greater, invisible battle within their own mind. Those who have suffered from a form of mental illness understand the difference between these two battles. The bottom line is, self-development and battling mental illness are not the same struggle.

With that being said, back to the original question. How does one successfully lead while at the same time battling mental illness? Some might argue that this simply isn’t possible. Some may say that the weight of the illness along with the pressure to develop yourself and inspire others is simply to much to handle all at once. Most would likely say that the battle of mental illness must be won first before a person can thrive within a leadership role. While this may be the case for a lot of people. I believe there is a way to put oneself in the best position to lead effectively despite having the burden of a mental illness. Here are the steps:

1) Own It

All too often people feel the need and pressure to hide their symptoms and take on the “Be a man” mentality. The idea of constantly trying to be be invulnerable has been proven to be ineffective and a cause for more internal destruction. There is nothing wrong with admitting to your followers that you are fighting this invisible battle. More likely than not, a number on them are fighting just like you. This admission also creates an opportunity for open discussion about mental illness and creates a family oriented atmosphere of trust, respect and and personal connection. These are all factors essential for effective, impactful and legacy-leaving leadership. Talking about it with others can also be one of the best ways to find some relief.

2) Prioritize it

Going along with owning it, one must then commit to make healing/relief a priority. This means scheduling time in your day aside from your leadership role strictly for self-help activities. This can be meditation, prayer, therapy, keeping a journal and/or medication prescribed by a doctor. The key here is to not simply own the illness and stop there. Owning it must be accompanied with combative action. While it is a vital first step, symptoms will not go away via admission only. One must understand and accept the responsibility to treat the illness in order to proceed and sustain the necessary mindset within their leadership role. Treatment equals hope. When one has hope, he/she is giving the illness exactly what it tries to deprive them from.


3) Understand the 3rd Battle isn’t a Literal Fight

While mental illness is surly a battle. One must understand that this battle must be fought in a totally different way than typical battles. Ironically enough, accepting the symptoms and not trying to fight against them is often the best solution. Just as situations in a leadership role require a sense of calmness, an accepting state of mind and a willingness to handle adversity, the same requirements also come into play for symptoms of anxiety, depression and OCD. That being said, this idea is certainly easier said than done. After all, why should we just let our negative thoughts ruminate in or mind? The key here is to understand and accept that it isn’t our thoughts, but our reaction to them which is causing the problems within. Therefore, the idea is to change our reaction to the thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. I have learned that one’s thoughts or feelings offer zero indication to the quality of that person. It is important for aspiring leaders accept this as reality.

All in all, there is no doubt that mental illness has the potential to sabotage one’s leadership endeavors. That being said, it is important to understand that despite this extra battle in one’s journey, there are ways to navigate the storm and still succeed as a leader. This process is likely to take time while having its ups and downs. It is important for one to understand that and not get discouraged when adversity strikes. Instead of running away and hiding from it, go towards that adversity with faith because the reward is on the other side of it. The willingness to embrace the healing process is key.

The bottom line is, mental illness is real. The number of people fighting this 3rd battle is constantly growing. Those who can successfully overcome it during their leadership journey will not just have success in their ventures, but also leave a lasting legacy of perseverance for all to follow.

Published by Zachary Paul Hoffman

I am a former professional athlete, tri-lingual, Italian/American duel-citizen and aspiring modern-day leadership development expert.

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