From my therapist’s couch to the conference room: Lessons in leadership

 ARTICLE BY VIJAY WADHAWAN

Two years ago, in April, I embarked on a transformative journey with a new therapist, whose profound influence has reshaped the way I think about leadership and what it means to be a leader. While business publications and podcasts offer valuable strategies to improve leadership skills, the experience I have had with my therapist has provided me with a unique perspective on leadership that is grounded in my humanity and that often has nuances in its approach that can be overlooked in traditional business literature. This firsthand experience with an exemplary leader in my therapist has enriched my understanding of what truly effective leadership looks like in practice.

As we observe Mental Health Week this week, it is critical to reflect on the significant role mental well-being plays within the workplace. Recognizing the importance of mental health serves as a poignant reminder of how we, as leaders, can cultivate workplace cultures that not only prioritize mental health but also encourage a deep, meaningful engagement with our colleagues and teams. It’s about creating spaces where people feel safe to explore their potential and are supported in their journey toward personal and professional excellence.

 

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from my therapist on leadership over the last two years:

 

Leading with Empathy

My therapist demonstrates empathy in several impactful ways that greatly facilitate my personal growth. He often uses validating phrases like “I understand why you feel this way” or “I would feel similarly,” which helps me feel understood and less isolated. He also builds trust by openly sharing his own vulnerabilities and discussing his flaws and challenges, creating a safe space that encourages openness and mutual understanding. Additionally, he references common themes and experiences from other patients, normalizing my feelings and illustrating that my experiences are part of a broader human context. Furthermore, he avoids making assumptions and instead asks curious questions that encourage me to explore my thoughts and feelings more deeply. This approach not only fosters greater self-awareness but also strengthens the trusting and open relationship necessary for effective therapy.

In the workplace, translating empathy involves leaders taking time to understand the unique values and perspectives of their employees, especially during challenging conversations. Leading with empathy enhances communication, increases job satisfaction, and creates a more supportive environment. By regularly setting aside time for one-on-one meetings that extend beyond job performance to discussions about personal growth and well-being, leaders can ensure employees are seen not merely as workers but as individuals whose unique perspectives and experiences are valued. This not only fosters a positive work culture but also drives meaningful engagement and loyalty.

 

The Power of Challenge

My therapist has expertly built a foundation of trust with me by consistently demonstrating that he has my best interests at heart. This relationship has allowed him to challenge me effectively, encouraging pauses to reflect on our discussions from different perspectives without making me feel diminished or admonished. These challenges push me to transcend perceived limitations and to unlearn behaviors and habits that no longer serve me.

In the workplace, leaders should similarly prioritize building trusting relationships with their team members through curiosity to deeply understand the individual and their values. Doing this allows leaders to seek opportunities to encourage their team members to pause and expand their thinking. Tailoring challenges to align with an individual’s unique values and strengths transforms potential obstacles into opportunities for growth. This method not only enhances resilience but also empowers employees to embrace leadership roles within their areas of expertise and to explore new areas for personal and professional development.

 

Patience in Practice

Change is indeed a process, and patience truly is a virtue. I often find myself battling impatience when progress doesn’t seem fast enough. My therapist has been instrumental in teaching me to slow down and understand that meaningful and consistent change requires time and dedicated effort. His patience is especially evident when I repeat behaviors that aren’t beneficial; he gently reminds me of our previous discussions and allows me the space to learn from these mistakes.

Similarly, leaders must cultivate patience and give their teams the time needed to adapt and grow. Recognizing that everyone progresses at their own pace and learns in different ways is essential for creating a supportive workplace where the individual and their needs are centered by setting realistic expectations and celebrating small victories along the journey of continuous improvement. This approach not only nurtures a healthy team dynamic but also reinforces a culture of patience and perseverance, essential for long-term success and long-term retention of top talent.

 

Reframing Flaw

In therapy, I’ve discovered that what we often label as flaws are not inherently negative traits. Instead, they represent aspects of our character where our skills may be less refined or not ideally suited to our way of being. This nuanced understanding of my so-called flaws, guided by my therapist’s insights, has dramatically shifted my perspective. I’ve learned that the very traits I once viewed as flaws are actually the foundations of my strengths. This realization allows me to effectively use my strengths to identify the supports and resources I need to succeed.

In a leadership context, this means fostering a culture where mistakes are part of the learning process. By encouraging employees to openly share their mistakes and the lessons learned, we cultivate a culture of transparency and continuous learning. This approach does not merely demystify failure; it builds a resilient team that is better equipped to navigate future challenges. It is through embracing and understanding our flaws that we unlock the full potential of our strengths, turning challenges into stepping stones for personal and professional growth.

 

Problem-Solving with Compassion

My experience in therapy has shown that problem-solving often involves a deep understanding of the interplay between emotions and logic in addressing life’s challenges. As someone who has traditionally prioritized ‘rational’ thought over emotional insight, I’ve learned that my decisions are invariably influenced by underlying emotions and values. Recognizing these emotional drivers and underlying values is crucial; they are not merely distractions but can be essential clues that lead to more effective solutions.

When leaders adopt a compassionate approach to problem-solving, taking into account the emotional and value-driven dimensions of their team members, the solutions crafted are not only more inclusive but also more effective. This method goes beyond simply resolving issues; it fosters a stronger connection within the team, enhancing collaboration and trust. By integrating compassion into our problem-solving processes, we not only achieve better outcomes but also contribute to a more supportive and cohesive workplace environment.

 

Final Thoughts

As Mental Health Week prompts us to reflect on the integration of well-being into every facet of our lives, I hope that we can continue to challenge ourselves as to what it means to be a compassionate and effective leader. I hope that in a world that is seemingly in constant chaos, we can find more ways to create work environments where challenges are met with courage, flaws are seen as opportunities for growth, and every individual’s unique perspective is valued.

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