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Walk Beside Me: Leaders and Mental Health

As is often the case with the wiser lessons of life, the quotation that inspired this article has ambiguous origins, and so to avoid misattribu- tion, and to allow for consideration without prejudice, I believe it’s best ingested namelessly: “Don’t walk in front of me, for I may not fol- low. Don’t walk behind me, for I may not lead. Walk beside me, just be my friend.” Now, trust me – I’m under no illusion that such sayings are very close ancestors of the cringe-inducing “Live, Laugh, Love” wall displays for which we, as a civiliza- tion, now have an intense disdain. However, upon recently reading it, I ex- perienced one of those small moments in which you feel as though the world’s un- derbelly has suddenly opened up, revealing a profound truth you couldn’t previously express. And that truth regards the nature of leadership in the modern day. Let us consider how things are presently: most of our leaders will paint at any cost the image that they’re sagely walking in front of us – implying that they know where they are going. Oftentimes, the image is quite con-vincing. From the smallest settings – of the classroom and unimportant group projects – up to the wuthering heights of CEOs and heads of state, leaders pretend that, despite its grow- ing grip, they remain untouched by the modern wave of mental health struggles. And this, because it has been instilled in us from age naught that it is wrong to display any mental foible which lies outside the cold western norm of sanitised perfection. However, this façade, that leaders are mentally untouchable, is slowly and thankfully beginning to fade away. I don’t really know how it has persisted for so long, given some of the loons who used to run the show – crystallised four centuries ago by Shakespeare’s stark raving mad Macbeth – and some of the loons who still do. Yet even amongst the most renowned and iconic leaders we see the pernicious effects that life and its challenges can wreak. Winston Churchill long suffered from manic-depression which he called his “black dog”; Princess Diana singu- larly paved the way for more open discussion about the mental health of those in the spotlight. A 2019 BMJ report found that in a sample of Britishparliamentarians surveyed, they had “higher rates of mental health problems than rates seen in the whole English population or compa- rable occupation- al groups.” Whether this is a result of power taking its toll, or whether those who struggle with mental health have a greater inclination for pow- er, I don’t know. It’s irrelevant; statistics and precedent show us that leaders are not invulnerable but, on the contrary, more susceptible to the plights of poor mental health. We can see hence why so often these things are concealed: it is fair to say that an awareness of the facts may dissuade many fol- lowers, rendering a leader no leader at all. However, we should not wish to reject leadership outright, as I shall touch on in a moment. Instead, it’s about a recognition of the fact that the leader-follower connection is much more closely bound than previous- ly thought. For just as people need leaders, some people need to lead; in order to become what they are, a leader needs a follower, and a follower a leader. Were we truly to rec- ognise this dependence, the ramifications could be as grand as we desire: less disparity between the treatment of bosses and employees; less stigma surrounding revelations of weakness by those we deem powerful; and the creation of a social harmony that is incompatible with distant aloofness. Although, equally undesirable is a state of affairs in which we are left leaderless. To continue the analogy, a situation in which the competent, the compassionate and the empa- thetic leave us – not to march on ahead as guides – but to fall back and resign themselves to their mental suffering. After all, if one is depressed or acutely anxious, why would one want to get involved in the first place, to partake in what seems either entirely pointless or entirely overwhelming? It “makes sense” not to – and therein lies the danger, for when the people are left to lead themselves, there is the opportunity – as we have seen pertinently over the past few years – for rabblerousers, deceivers, and demagogues to take the stage, the mic, and control in a way that no self-conscious leader ever would. Such a dilemma is summarised best by Bertrand Russell’s observation that “the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” If we wish to avoid the isolation and silent suffering of our leaders, whilst preventing the pandemonium of the perfidious, then a clear solution emerges: walking beside one another. Empathising with and relating to one another when it comes to the strains of being human. It need not demolish fundamental social hierarchies, nor should it be seen as a communist calling card. Much like for the mother who holds her child’s hand to lead them across the street, there remains a healthy power imbalance. It is not dis- tantly ahead, nor is it lacking behind. Instead, it is humane, compassionate, and endearing rather than divisive. Above all else, it evanesces the potential disconnect between the poli- tician and voter, boss and employee, teacher and student, by teaching us a simple principle: before any such dis- tinctions, we should first be friends.

Image: West Midlands Police

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