Invest in Emotional Health

Article originally hosted and shared with permission by The Christian Economic Forum, a global network of leaders who join together to collaborate and introduce strategic ideas for the spread of God’s economic principles and the goodness of Jesus Christ. This article was from a collection of White Papers compiled for attendees of the CEF’s 2018 Global Event.

— by David Park

Culture and Leadership are Important
Many of the attributes of great companies and organizations are well known: A high-performing team, sustainable competitive advantage, appropriate capitalization, and sound governance often lead to excellent outcomes in profit or impact. In addition to these attributes, having an exceptional organizational culture has become critical to attracting and retaining the best people. Even when a culture has not yet been established, founders and investors choose to work with each other partly based on shared values.

The culture of an organization will embody the values and personality of the leaders, so much so that changing an organization’s culture usually means changing its leaders. Much has been written about organizational culture and even more has been written about leadership. This literature tends to focus on personal or team effectiveness, strategies, and tactics for improving productivity, as well as reviews of aspects of popular corporate cultures. I am increasingly convinced, however, that we have missed an important foundation of healthy culture and effective leadership.

Emotional Health Matters
Daily, there are stories in the media about leadership failures ranging from fraud to scandal. Most individuals have experienced dysfunctional management and culture stemming from poor leadership within their organizations. For leaders who seem to lead from insecurity, fear, or anger, the consequences are apparent. For even the most talented leaders, though, often it seems there is a dark side to their brilliance and drive. Too late, we read about a hidden sin that was corrupting their lives from within. Christian leaders are not exempt from these failures.

Why are these stories so frequent? I contend these failures are principally matters of the heart, the consequence of neglecting to identify and address issues of emotional health. Expecting emotionally unhealthy leaders to build healthy cultures is not reasonable. How leaders handle relationships, failure, stress, and conflict is all driven, to a large degree, by their interior state. Without regular investment in improving their emotional health, they are hampered in their ability to lead well. Leaders who are not emotionally healthy often struggle to reconcile what they believe with how they behave. They also have difficulty managing their fear and insecurity, and are often overwhelmed by circumstances and pressure.

Emotional health is not a popular or familiar topic. Very little in formal or informal education addresses issues of emotional health. To cope with the challenges of life, people often default to their personalities, or to examples from their family of origin, which may include behaviors that can lead to process addictions and substance abuse. Many people naturally seek coaching and education in the areas of professional knowledge or physical health, but they do not do the same with emotional health. Working on improving emotional health is often hard, painful work. In addition, many view going to see a counselor or therapist as shameful, so they only do so as a last resort.

Examples of Emotional Health Issues
The following are a just a few examples of causes or symptoms of emotional health issues.

Childhood or developmental trauma often goes unidentified, so the wounds fester into adulthood. These become the lens through which individuals experience the world and often spur the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Trauma is not limited to sexual or physical abuse, but can be the result of many life experiences including divorce, death, injury, or neglect.

Compulsive behavior
To distract from or become numb to pain, many individuals resort to process addictions (e.g., shopping, eating, and pornography) and substance abuse. These individuals may be highly functioning but are living with destructive behaviors that may eventually cause significant damage.

Poor understanding of personalities
Most people lack a useful framework for understanding different personalities, including their own. Gender, ethnic, or other stereotypes are of limited use in understanding individual motivations and temperaments.

Lack of boundaries
Many individuals struggle with differentiating themselves from those around them. For these individuals it is difficult to be honest, self-aware, and not manipulative.  

What Can Be Done
These issues cannot be fully resolved by the human resources department of a company. They also cannot be fully addressed through a Corporate Chaplain program. Professional counseling or therapy is needed for individuals to be equipped with the appropriate tools, awareness, and resources.

Make counseling or therapy mandatory for company leaders and provide the resources for it

Too often, we require counseling or therapy only after a problem has been publicly identified. By then, significant damage has already occurred, and more work is required to repair trust. In addition, individuals who are receiving help have been singled out and bear a social burden that can be detrimental to progress. The reality is that everyone has something to work on in emotional health. Making this known and establishing it as the norm would allow individuals to address issues before they become acute and will create more tools for honest and informed dialogue when issues do arise.

Look for alignment with stakeholders

The organization’s intentional investment in emotional health must be transparent, with buy-in and accountability from key stakeholders including the board and investors. The effort is likely to be material in impact, both in cost and benefit, and should be recognized as such.

Seek non-judgmental awareness and growth over uniformity or perfection

There is no ideal personality or temperament. The expectation for counseling or therapy is not perfection. The hope is for personal and collective awareness and growth that will lead to better communication and effectiveness.

The Hidden Key to Building a Great Organization
An organization’s greatness cannot meaningfully exceed the emotional health of its leadership. Eventually, unhealthy leaders will create unhealthy cultures and limit the ability of the company to achieve or sustain success. Fortunately, something can be done about this. Just as we would expect investments in professional training and capital assets to generate a return on investment, we should expect that improving emotional health will pay dividends as well. It is time to bring attention to the need for emotional health in our leaders and invest significantly toward this end.


[Special thanks for the cover photo to Ben Sweet on Unsplash]