Why leaders still pretend to be okay and why that is a problem for everyone

Carin-Isabel Knoop
11 min readMay 29
elephant in a suit on stage, in the style of babar, no one seems to notice
Don’t mind me (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

As for being a poster child of law firm leaders with mental health challenges, [Simon] Malko admitted he did have a moment of doubt about coming out. “There was a little voice that asked, why are you doing it?” Quickly, though, he decided “it was the right thing to do.

Today employee engagement and retention — physical and cognitive — is a central concern. Workers are reeling from the pandemic, economic conditions, political polarization, racial unrest, war, and climate change.

Buzzwords dramatically evoke the pain across headlines and social media — Anti-Perks, Rage-applying, Quiet resignation, Quiet Quitting or Firing or Hiring, and Burnout — to encourage clicking and engagement, of course.

Even when present, employees are less willing than in 2016 to support change efforts (74% vs 38% in 2023). People are tired but also alienated from the change agents who are not skillfully engaging with employees. In times of change, employees seek proximity and comfort from the anxiety of ambiguity, and leaders are expected to give sense to ongoing incidents. This places an additional burden on leaders.

Concerned about mood disorders like depression and anxiety, jacking up absenteeism and presenteeism (individuals at work when unwell) and reducing productivity, leaders are discussing employee mental health much more frequently today, spending money to palliate distressed employees and combat disengagement.

Companies responded with more time off and benefits, including some of the 20,000+ mental health apps; yoga, mindfulness, and self-care classes and resources; and more chief people or health and wellness officers.

While artists, influencers, army leaders, and athletes are increasingly vocal about their mental health, business leaders haven’t yet been forthcoming — although this population over-indexes for them, and the pandemic has been particularly corrosive to leaders and managers. The stigma of mental health issues remains extremely high in the business community.

So instead of getting better, employees are tiring of the “corporate therapy speak” and caring theater. All parties are frustrated and agitated.

What has NOT been happening: honesty and humanity in the C-suite. Employees must believe that management cares and that this is not just another fad. They need to know they are being understood and listened to by fellow human beings, not perfect robots.

Employees will not believe that you are FOR them in these difficult times unless leaders and managers are willing to share with them what they have gone through WITH them.

Here we explore why it is still so fraught for leaders to come forward, how we make it hard for them to do so, and how it could be different.

Warning: excelling can be bad for mental health.

We know that top achievers and their family members are struggling at least as much as but statistically even more than employees.

According to a Bloomberg Law survey, lawyers reported feeling burned out 49% of the time in 2022, while 72% reported disrupted sleep, 65% anxiety, 35% physical health issues, 35% personal relationship problems, and 29% depression. In another report, lawyers were found twice as likely as the general population to contemplate suicide; 8.5% of lawyer respondents also reported having thoughts that they’d “be better off dead.”

In the medical field, the suicide rate for doctors has been estimated to be 2x to 5x that of the general population, and substance use disorders are also more common.

On the business side, entrepreneurs are often encouraged to “sleep faster” and less than a third of top executives sleep seven or more hours a night. Entrepreneurs also report more ADHD (29% vs 5% on average), bipolar disorder (11% vs 1%), addiction (12% vs 4%), and depression (30% vs 15%).

Narcissistic tendencies are over-represented in high achievers and some estimate that as high as 12% of CEOs display psychopathic traits, closer to the 15% rate found in prisons. Psychopathy is also well-represented in top managerial ranks. Forensic psychologists Nathan Brooks and Dr. Simon Croom of the University of San Diego found that 21% of 261 corporate professionals in the supply chain management industry showed psychopathic traits such as insincerity, lack of empathy or remorse, and egocentric, charming, and superficial personalities. Risks of unethical behavior, illegal business practices, and conflict among employees increase when psychopaths enter corporate ranks.

And like all of us, they are affected by common stressors. Phones place us in perpetual stress of FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBO (fear of a better option –work, date, place), and FOLO (fear of losing out). Online, everyone brags about being promoted and getting a new job, but no one shares how hard they worked for the promotion or the 40 rejections they endured.

Our technology enables an “always-on” culture, which brings work home and home to work, and difficult topics follow us everywhere. While we often change clothes to work, we do not switch our brain.

Finally, social factors such as the breakdown in family structures and loss of faith contribute to what the US Surgeon General declared a loneliness epidemic. And we have gotten in the habit of getting what we want when we want. Siri and personal assistants train us to bark orders to get what we want, worsening a lack of civility some of us regret post-pandemic. Through our apps, we order entertainment, transportation, food, and sex at the click of a button. We become more transactional and less patient with friends, loved ones, and airline personnel.

The next generation is also struggling. According to Princeton University, about 30% of college students are affected by eating disorders. Most students are in their late teens or early 20s.

Why it is hard to shed the superhero cape

Being in a position of power has its benefits but also holds certain limitations. Society often celebrates strength, confidence, and success while downplaying or stigmatizing vulnerability and weakness. “Agility, adaptability, flexibility, mental and physical resilience, competence, and most importantly character” are traits the US Army seeks in its leaders.

These models and cultural expectations seep into the organizational realm, creating pressure for leaders to conform to the image of invincibility. Executives are expected to be strong leaders who inspire confidence and make tough decisions daily, often being forced to act from a position of strength. Business schools do not provide a textured view of leadership. In some ways, it also makes leadership easier. There is less second-guessing and questioning of authority.

If we want to succeed, we are taught to suck it up, especially as men, and keep a stiff upper lip. This presents as a “putting on a face” tax. Code-switching is a concept we have been exploring in the context of DEI work, but it also applies to leaders who are taught to “look and behave” like people in charge. And although the research behind the famous Ted talk on “fake it till you make it” was disproven, it tapped into our cultural wiring because many of us engage in this behavior.

Being in charge means being in control. Being in control means suppressing emotions. Bowlby’s attachment research suggests that the stiff upper lip can be evidence of dismissive or avoidant attachment, which makes it harder for people to connect with others. This can present as a fear of intimacy and feeling negative (distressing) emotions, phoniness, manic work ethic, and the incapacity to relax (truly feel enjoyment).

Loss of respect and even employment

In highly competitive groups such as the C-suite, the margin for error is often minimal, and the imperative of superhero performance is ever-present. We compete for attention, respect, and resources.

Admitting vulnerability or acknowledging weaknesses can be seen as a threat to our authority or competence, moving us to a position of weakness instead of strength. Talking about mental health struggles is still seen as a direct display of weakness, creating space for power struggles from highly competitive successors or colleagues. It also exposes an executive to formal competency evaluations from the Board and potential removal.

Challenge to identity and self-image

Additionally, the fear of being judged or perceived as incompetent by their peers, subordinates, or superiors can further discourage managers and executives from showing vulnerability. The prevailing culture of “always having it together” in the corporate world can create a sense of insecurity and the belief that admitting weakness is a sign of failure.

Managers and executives may fear that displaying weakness will be interpreted as incompetence or failure by their colleagues, subordinates, or superiors. The competitive nature of many workplaces further exacerbates this fear, as individuals strive to maintain a positive image to secure their position and advancement.

Being in a position of power may encourage leaders to associate their self-worth and identity with their professional role, investing a lot of time and effort in the careful curation of their idealized personal brand. Admitting weakness can challenge their self-perception and create a sense of insecurity or identity threat. And if the organizational culture rewards and promotes an image of strength and invulnerability, individuals are more likely to conform to those expectations, feeding this feedback loop.

Personal risk

While family members might regret that the superstar worker is never home or always stressed, they often bask in the light of our successes, reputational and pecuniary. Powerful people seek out powerful people.

Further, at a societal level, we seem to assume that power and money somehow insulate individuals from the nefarious consequences of stress. We might shame them for coming forward. How can you be depressed if you have so much money and so much power and picture-perfect families?

Finally, despite our alleged modernity, we still gravitate to authority. Breaking out of that authority figure can be risky. We want leaders to show vulnerability but punish them when they do. This can be very hard culturally for men about especially challenging for women, especially younger female leaders, whose talents may be under-estimated.

Finally, when employees take time off for mental health issues, they can blame it on managers. When leaders need to take a mental health leave, they often have no one to blame. That is because it is their failure rather than the system’s failure.

Is there another way?

water color style female doctor with superhero shirt and jeans
The human behind the cape (photo credit Antonio Sadaric and midjourney)

While there have been talks around the desirability of psychological safety in workplace environments, they are often from a normative and belittling position from the top of a hierarchy. Adam Grant suggests that displaying weakness is the best way to foster psychological safety in a group, as it shows that the organization is ok with vulnerability and humanity in the workplace. By acknowledging and addressing their weaknesses, leaders create environments that promote learning, innovation, and collaboration.

The superhuman narrative should be addressed with the notion of “kryptonite,” introduced into fiction to make the character more relatable through the struggles it will endure throughout the story. Embracing vulnerability can be a strength, allowing leaders to connect with their teams on a deeper level and build trust.

On the other hand, a group that values strength and invincibility over humanity will not appreciate displays of weakness but move swiftly to replace the weak with the strong.

To foster a culture of openness and support, leaders should model vulnerability, provide resources and support for mental health, and prioritize employee well-being through policies and initiatives. By caring for employees’ holistic well-being, organizations can create an environment where individuals feel comfortable discussing weaknesses and mental health struggles, leading to improved employee engagement, productivity, and overall organizational success.

Athletes (like Novak Djokovic and Michael Phelps), star chefs (like Wolfgang Puck), and artists (like Harry Styles and Bruce Springsteen) have been vocal about both the cost of success and the role their diagnoses might have played in both their extreme achievements, darkest struggles, and approaches to stay mentally healthy.

After a blistering defeat, boxing heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko told us when we interviewed him for our case study he decided to replace his coach and team but also hire a mental coach. “At first,” he recalled: “I was against it because, as the stereotype goes, I thought that I was not ‘that kind’ of a weak person. And I discovered a totally new world for me. It changed my life.”

The ultimate brave leadership will come from overcoming the weakness that is still attached to talking about mental health. We understand that it is complicated. Artists have the support of fans– whose approval often increases after an athlete opens up. In the same way, leaders need to have the support of investors and employees if they are honest, and business schools need to do their part by talking about mental health in their classrooms.

Be inspired by human superheroes.

At a firm-wide meeting in the Fall of 2022, the managing partner of Atlanta’s Morris, Manning & Martin law firm and its youngest MP in its 42-year history, the chair of the firm’s litigation practice, and its general counsel addressed the 200 people group.

Simon Malko told everyone that he had struggled. “When I became a managing partner [in 2019], I had a lot of anxiety. I was dealing with a lot at work and the stress of raising two kids at home,” he shared. “I had an awful lot on my plate, and I was struggling with managing it all. Most lawyers, if they’re honest, have these issues.”

“I wasn’t raised to see a therapist,” he said. “I was 48 years old when I started, and it took me months to find one that I clicked with.” “During the pandemic, we could see people were struggling. We’ve always had good benefits that covered mental health, but people weren’t using them. A big part of that was stigma.”

After that, he pushed to get an onsite therapist at the firm. By May 2023, a wide cross-section of people had taken 150 sessions free of charge. “My goal is to make it easy to seek help and get rid of the stigma,” adding that “people don’t need to wait until they’re diagnosed with clinical depression or in need of hospitalization to get help.” “Without the support of senior management, this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Another example is Maj. Gen. Ernie Liynski. He led on two fronts: first for three decades in the Army and second for his work to shed light on mental health issues among troops, trying to lift the veil of stigma that kills. He discusses how he came apart after returning from Afghanistan with PTSD. “There’s a shame if you show weakness,” he told The New York Times. “That’s the way I felt.” He sat in his basement staring into nothing for three years — avoiding parties, family meals, his preteen child, and the marital bed. He since widely shares how he healed with recruits and colleagues.

James Kinney, chief people fficer at media and advertising industry disruptor S4 Capital and media.monks, explained how his experience and personal journey helped him deal with his professional stress and support others. “Workplaces tend to reward overworking and the strength of being tough,” Kinney said.” But now we know that through being vulnerable, and through being authentic and sharing your experience of mental health, that’s actually what we consider now to be tough, right? So it’s okay to not be okay.”

When leaders admit to having struggled with and worked to address mental health issues, employees are likelier to do so and connect differently with leaders. “I’m hopeful,” Malko said. “I think there’s a strong business case for it. It helps with retention and signals that we care about people.”

Compiled by Antonio Sadaric, Ph.D., Michael Stanley, MD, and Carin-Isabel Knoop. Please send us your superhero stories — humans or not, tell your story and support those who share theirs.

The quotes by Simon Malko are sourced from this excellent piece by Vivia Chen, https://news.bloomberglaw.com/us-law-week/meet-the-law-firm-leader-whos-out-about-his-own-mental-health, accessed May 2023.

Carin-Isabel Knoop

Harvard Business School Executive Director, passionate about human sustainability@work. Pragmatic optimist devoted to helping those who care for others.