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Why every leader needs a therapist

It won’t fix everything, but therapy can give the mechanisms to respond to situations with empathy and understanding, instead of reactivity and defensiveness.

Why every leader needs a therapist
[Source Images: Getty]

We’ve all been through a lot these past few years. I’m sure every leader will tell you that steering a business through a global pandemic and supporting employees through racial injustice and heartbreaking and senseless acts of violence has been nothing short of grueling. What they probably don’t tell you is that it’s also been really hard personally. 

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While the fact remains that discussing mental health in the workplace is still highly stigmatized, some of the best advice I’d heard came from Linda Hill and Kent Lineback—that the most important role for leaders is managing themselves.

I’ve gone to therapy for years; it gives me a safe place to explore my emotions and analyze my reactions. Especially now, it’s something every leader should have in their toolkit. When I carve out the time to prioritize therapy, I’ve noticed a few ways that I’m able to show up as a better leader—and human—because of it. 

Broadening perspectives

As leaders, we all need people we can lean on, talk to, and ask for advice. I see therapy as an opportunity to dig even deeper, to reframe my thinking around certain scenarios and, ultimately, solve more complex problems. 

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When I was going through a tough patch in my relationship with a senior leader years ago, my therapist helped me work through it. She asked me to identify what motivates my colleague, what they’re afraid of, and how my actions might contribute to creating a cycle that was unproductive for both of us. Was it fun to hear? Nope. But did it lead me to see how my own behavior was contributing to a negative cycle? Absolutely. 

Therapy allows us to take an objective step back, giving us the self-awareness to learn and grow from our missteps. I also have an executive coach for this exact reason, and the combination of input from both undoubtedly makes me better as a leader.

Strengthening mindfulness muscles

Truth is, no one is perfect and therapy isn’t going to “fix” anything, but it can give you the mechanisms to respond to situations with empathy and understanding instead of reactivity and defensiveness. 

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I admire the executives that meditate; I’ve never been able to. Instead, I tend to take on more active forms of mindfulness, like The Class, a mix of movement and restoration that helps me center myself. I’ve noticed that when I don’t make time for it, I have a shorter fuse. 

I talk to my team actively about the rituals I use to manage my energy. I don’t expect them to mirror mine, but rather hope they feel fully empowered to create space for their own well-being and to set boundaries around those things at work. 

A woman on my team is taking a stained glass class one night per week to get her creative energy back, another woman got certified to teach yoga and regularly leads our team in breathing exercises, and one of the men on my team gave a great presentation upon returning from parental leave about how he finds balance. Creating space for these rituals ensures that everyone feels not just encouraged but empowered to prioritize their well-being personally and professionally. 

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Psychologically safe workplace

Don’t we all want all our employees to feel like they can bring their whole selves to work? As leaders, it can be tempting to put on a brave face and not let our own emotions show. Truthfully, doing that is a disservice to our employees and sends the wrong message. Instead, we need to create space—for connection, discussion, and healing. And that starts by being vulnerable yourself and recognizing that it’s okay to not be okay. Recently, our chief sales officer shared his feelings and transparently admitted he doesn’t have all of the answers for how to move forward. In a hybrid world, where people are feeling isolated and alone, asking how folks are feeling and being kind to one another is more important than ever. 

If we can lead by example and be transparent about how we ask for help, it’ll be easier for employees to do so as well. The first week HubSpot’s Modern Health benefit launched, I booked an appointment and told our team how it went at a high level so they would know that leveraging our mental health benefits is just like any other benefit we offer and should be normalized. To date, 53% of our global workforce have engaged with a coach or therapist through this benefit. 

The bottom line is that leaders are flawed, imperfect, and, yes, human. But normalizing therapy and asking for help shows strength, resiliency, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make yourself the best leader you can be. As Linda Hill says, “leadership is about using yourself as an instrument to get things done. It can be learned, but only if you are willing and able to engage in serious self-development.” I am slowly but surely working my way through that with a lot of help, and I hope more leaders consider doing so, too. 

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Katie Burke is the chief people officer at HubSpot, a leading inbound marketing and sales software company. At HubSpot, she leads the company’s efforts to make culture a competitive advantage globally by attracting, retaining, and growing top talent.


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