When Strengths Become Weaknesses: The Leadership Dilemma

Emotional fitness is key for healthy, effective leadership.

Posted Oct 20, 2020

 Jehyun Sung/Unsplash
Source: Jehyun Sung/Unsplash

Have you ever witnessed a manager, a CEO—or even yourself—work to the point of absolute burnout

It’s extremely common. And it’s also a good sign that it’s time to work on your emotional fitness. 

People who make their way into leadership roles often do so because they have unique strengths: persistence in the face of defeat, resilience in the face of rejection, willingness to power through when things seem bleak. But without thoughtful cultivation and support, these same strengths can become a leader’s greatest weaknesses when it comes to mental health and company culture

Leaders set the tone and ethos for the entire company, and therefore it is imperative that they be emotionally fit and get comfortable talking about mental health. Studies show that millennial employees value company cultures that prioritize mental health conversations and support and are more likely to stay at a job where mental health is part of the conversation.

But the impetus for doing this work goes beyond retention. Young people in the workforce today take cues on how to collaborate and lead from their CEOs and managers. If they are working in an environment that teaches them how to be communicative, build resilience, and foster empathy, they will take these lessons with them when they become the next generation of leaders. In contrast, if they’re in a toxic work environment with unhealthy leadership, they will learn to mirror that behavior instead. 

Intervening at the top encourages the creation of emotionally fit companies, which foster emotionally fit staff, who will create emotionally fit products and will increase emotional fitness in all who use those products.

A study done by Freeman et al. suggests that as many as 72 percent of entrepreneurs have mental health concerns, but only a small percentage are likely seeking regular support. And as Y Combinator’s Sam Altman writes, “There is a huge amount of pressure as a founder to never show weakness and to be the cheerleader in all internal and external situations”—meaning most will fake it until they break it.

In this column, we’re going to define emotionally fit leadership—and offer tools and tricks for how to become an emotionally fit leader—but before we dig in, let’s pause for one minute to dispel one very pervasive fallacy: The goal is not to become the mythical leader made of Teflon, who requires no emotional support. Quite the opposite. The goal is to become the authentic leader—one who is self-aware and empathetic and who knows how to move themselves, their teams, and their companies from stuck to unstuck.

This is not a black-and-white spectrum, where at one end, there are leaders who are barely holding it together in the face of crippling anxiety and depression, and at the other end, there are supposedly “healthy” leaders who never make mistakes. In truth, the majority of our emotional lives are lived in that robust grey zone between complete bliss and debilitating mental illness. 

So what is “emotional fitness?”

When we talk about emotional fitness, we’re talking about an ongoing commitment to looking inward, processing through difficult emotions, and working toward self-awareness and self-improvement. It’s an understanding that if leaders want to have healthy teams, they’ll have to prioritize mental health in themselves too.

Think about emotional fitness the way you might think about physical fitness: doing regular, proactive exercises that allow you to build up mental resilience to face the inevitable complexities of life. And like any fitness regimen, regular maintenance will prevent more serious issues down the line. Becoming emotionally fit may not be quick or easy—if your workout at the gym is quick and easy, you’re probably not getting any stronger there either—but leaders willing to invest in themselves will see huge payoffs at work and at home.

To understand what emotional fitness looks like in practice, we conducted extensive qualitative research, interviewing hundreds of psychologists and entrepreneurs about what makes a leader emotionally fit. In the end, we were able to distill the findings into the "7 Traits of Emotionally Fit Leaders."

These are the seven characteristics that emotionally fit leaders strive for. They are not traits to “achieve” but rather to work toward:

  • Self-awareness
  • Empathy
  • Mindfulness
  • Willingness to play
  • Curiosity
  • Resilience
  • Effective communication

We’ll dive deeper into each of these traits and what you can do to foster them in our next post. Until then, I’d like to leave you with a quick reflection: How emotionally fit do you believe yourself to be in relation to the people you spend time with (more than others, about the same, or less than others)? Over the weeks ahead, we'll explore the accuracy of your self-assessment.

And, as a general rule, we invite you to leave us a comment below about what resonates with you. We’ll be using the comments section to guide future articles and advice.