I find it very hard to believe that just over a year ago, I was finishing my career as a Local Government Chief Executive on a career high, at the London Hilton, leading a highly talented team of officers and members, as a finalist of the Municipal Journal Council of the Year Awards.
My decision to step aside was predicated on a value that good leaders know when to develop a team, hand over the baton and continue their own learning and development. What I did not realise at the time was just how much learning I would do about myself, or indeed how ill I had become from a lifetime of always feeling the need to prove myself, putting others first and delivering anything asked of me, in a transparent and values-driven way.
After the awards, I spent my first morning of retirement visiting the National Archives as I wanted to start research on a family member, who was captured at the fall of Singapore at the beginning of the Second World War. I was excited to travel the tube to Richmond to visit the National Archives, although I was having a growing realisation, I was now no longer a Chief Executive. The scary thing for me is that I distinctly remember leaving the National Archives with a massive cloud of feelings and emotions, all centred upon loneliness, isolation and sadness, not one bit of brightness. Whilst I initially thought it was the running down of adrenaline from the awards celebrations and what I had learnt about my uncle, I was to discover over the coming days and weeks that this cloud was different from the many I had experienced throughout my life. It was darker, dense and all-consuming. I was mystified as to how I was feeling. I had worked extensively over many years to develop myself and others as part of a succession plan, I utilised the skills of some good coaches to assist me in preparing for a different future and I had studied to give myself enhanced skills.
Initially, I deployed all my normal tactics and techniques; work harder, distract myself with other things and force myself to be happy in front of others. My distraction became my immediate family, as my mother was ill and sadly passed away a month after my retirement. I threw myself back into doing my duty, ensuring my mum’s wishes were carried out and supporting my sister. My rationale was this was a life event everyone has to deal with. However, I increasingly felt like I was failing, no longer useful and constantly tired and disinterested in things I used to enjoy.
I was diagnosed with depression, in addition to my lifetime challenge of low self-esteem which had always been a constant battle. In the early autumn, I went on a once in a lifetime holiday to Singapore, New Zealand and Thailand. I once again failed to live in the moment and fully absorb all of the experiences, but it did enable me to begin to recuperate whilst understanding and applying the techniques being shared with me by my CBT therapist. I recall during my homeward journey sharing with my wife that I was not ready to return. It all felt too soon and I was beginning to panic about being rejected, no longer feeling relevant and had no confidence in my ability to set up a company to help others. Little did any of us know that we were about to live through the current pandemic.
My observation, as I continue to recover from my depression, is that it has been with me throughout my life, right back to my childhood. It was a shadow that I managed to mask and cover up for an extremely long time, I constantly flicked off recognition and success, believing I needed to constantly recognize others and deliver the next objective. It took a series of life changes to bring the full force of my refusal to put myself first and, as a result, the cloud of depression nearly won. Thanks to some patient and brilliant insight and techniques provided by my therapist, I have now come to the realisation that whilst the “visitor” (a term recently used by Denise Welch) will periodically enter my world, I should be proud of my successes and that I am still strong and resilient enough to cope, and have a massive amount of experience and learning to share with others.
So why have I chosen to share this personal reflection?
Whilst I am witnessing many leaders rising to the unique challenges of the pandemic, economic downturn and personal survival, I am also seeing that the resilience of many is being severely tested and eroded. My treatment revealed to me that despite my “cunning plan” I was ignoring the signs, deflecting the reality whilst simply working harder to please others. As a result, my resilience, one of the traits of leadership, had become worn down. There is much being written about health and wellbeing and I for one continue to believe more than ever it is important to organisations to ensure their leaders are nurtured and protected from the symptoms of a disease that will not always show itself clearly to the individuals affected. A clear signal needs to be given that it is okay to not be okay, and I continue to worry that leaders will naturally see it as a sign of weakness or believe they can fight it off by just working harder.
I am eternally grateful to a number of individuals that have remained close to me, supported me in rediscovering my strengths and continued to believe I have something to offer. I would urge any leader, who is prone to deflection techniques, to talk to someone regarding how they are actually feeling before it manifests itself into a problem that if ignored may pull you down. Now, more than any other time, it is important to take breaks, revaluate your priorities and self-check your feelings and emotions.