VUCA. This acronym, first coined by the military, refers to a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In a VUCA world, we count on and look to leaders for direction and guidance, especially in times of crisis. Where are these leaders now, and what does it mean to lead in this context?
The best definition of leadership that I have encountered comes from Girls Leadership, an inspiring organization focused on “teaching girls to exercise the power of their voice.” According to their definition, “Leadership is making others and situations better as a result of your presence, and making that impact last in your absence. This work can begin at any age and doesn’t require a title or role.” Good leaders have the opportunity to protect and promote the mental health of individuals and communities they serve. Bad leaders have the potential to do the opposite.
1. Leader as role model. What Robert Fulghum said about parenting holds true for leaders as well: ‘don’t worry that they never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.’ When leaders educate themselves about mental health, talk about mental health, and act in ways that demonstrate that they prioritize mental health, they are modeling self-care and care for the community for all who are watching. We follow the example of leaders we respect and trust, and having a trusted role model is positively correlated with enhanced mental health.
2. Leader as champion. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned that ‘our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ Leaders who share mental health information and resources, who take clear and deliberate actions to protect the mental health and safety of others, who communicate with transparency, authenticity, empathy, and optimism can reduce distress, fear, anxiety, and despair among those they serve or represent. Mental health champions break the silence around mental illness and help lead culture change that propels the growth of organizations and communities where mental health matters.
3. Leader as problem solver. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity make for fraught decision making. Effective leaders meet volatility with vision, uncertainty with understanding, complexity with clarity, and ambiguity with agility. Essential to good leadership is the ability to bring foresight, knowledge, precision, and skill to solving common linear problems as well as contending with the wicked problems of our times.
4. Leader as servant. The construct of servant leader has ancient roots that take us back to the 5th century BCE Chinese philosophy of Laozi, who asserted that when the best leaders finish their work, their people say, “we did it ourselves.” The modern-day concept of servant leadership was championed by Robert Greenleaf, beginning with his 1971 essay, The Servant as Leader. Servant leaders take the traditional power leadership model and turn it upside down. These leaders possess a serve-first mindset – serving rather than commanding, leading with humility rather than power. Laub defined servant leadership as “An understanding and practice of leadership that places the good of those led over the self-interest of the leader.”
5. Leader as steward. The Seventh Generation Principle serves as a cornerstone for the model of leaders as stewards. Derived from an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy, the essential idea is that our decisions today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. Commonly applied to leadership as it pertains to the environment and climate crisis, it is equally relevant to mental health when we consider the intergenerational transmission of mental health conditions. Good stewards make decisions with an awareness that the mental health impacts of today’s choices will reverberate for generations yet to come.
The recent mass shootings in the United States layered on top of the COVID pandemic, global conflicts, and environmental crisis raise pressing questions about leadership. Who are the leaders in our world ‘making others and situations better as a result of that presence, and making that impact last in their absence?’ As we consider our elected leaders, I think of suffragist Susan B. Anthony who said, “Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.” I also draw inspiration from the idea that leadership can begin at any age and doesn’t require a title or role. May we all find our voice, cast our vote, and take a lead in making mental health matter.