Attention on the net, Capt. Fletch here, calling all leaders for another tailgate talk at the Leadership Toolbox!
If you have not noticed, I try to begin each month with a unique greeting. I learned this from my kids. They like to greet me in all sorts of languages and accents from time to time, as they find it quite entertaining.
Last month, we discussed leadership fad diets. To recap, I consider it a lost opportunity when leaders define their style by simply buying into the latest program to hit the leadership swap meet, hoping it will make them a great leader overnight. This month, considering recent events in Afghanistan, I would like to take a step back and discuss how to avoid the worst day for any leader: the culmination of mental health suffering, when a team member takes their own life.
People have repeatedly asked me my thoughts about Afghanistan because I am a veteran. However, I do not wish to talk strategy or opinions. Instead, I’d rather consider the secondary effects of events like this. People who know me know that I suffered from anxiety and depression in my career due to work in remote locations. I choose to share this with people because I believe it has the power to help others get help, as I did. I am alive today because I made the choice to get help. However, seven people along my path did not make that choice. Yes, seven times in my career I have seen suicide rear its ugly head in the face of a unit. I then witnessed the question behind the facial expression of the leader(s): “Why didn’t I see this coming?” At this point, I do not want people to think I am going on a personal rant. To me, this issue goes to the heart of whether a leader knows their people.
People may not know, but the leading cause of death in the U.S. military is suicide. It claims more of those who serve than the hands of our “enemies.” A struggling veteran loses the battle with suicidal thoughts every 22 minutes on average. We may do 22 pushups a day as a symbol of solidarity with those veterans, but awareness alone doesn’t solve the issue.
Of course, these challenges don’t limit themselves to just my brothers and sisters in uniform. It seems Covid-19 has had a negative impact around the world on mental health, economic factors, social issues and just about anything else you can think of. We’ve all faced a growing list of difficult situations. It has even reached children doing their best to learn from home for extended periods.
Veterans, however, can face special challenges related to their service. I heard that, in the first three weeks of the current Afghanistan situation, an estimated 35,000 veterans called the Veteran’s Administration crisis hotline seeking mental health support in response.
I could continue to lay out facts and figures, but the point is we have a problem. The question then becomes, how do we approach this as leaders?
The first time I experienced an event related to suicide was in college when I found another student trying to hang themselves in the bathroom. It was traumatic, to say the least. However, it sparked questions in my mind: How does someone see this coming? How do we prevent this? I ask myself a different question when I look at leaders around me: Would you see it coming if you walked in today and had to face the worst day any leader must face? To me, that is where some degree of a solution begins. Ask yourself every day, “Do I know my people well enough that I would be able to see it coming if there was a catastrophic event on the horizon?”
Sometimes you genuinely cannot see it. Some people are that good at covering it up. Often the signs are so little they go unnoticed: a difference in posture, a slower or more depressed walk, the lack of enthusiasm in a usually jovial greeting.
Or, you might say, “Well, Jake, I have a lot of people. It is impossible for me to know this level of detail for all of them.” The answer to your question? Use the rest of the team, which then answers the question for people wondering how to be a leader when you are not the person in the leadership role.
Let’s take a step back for a second and approach it from a different angle. Our safety programs in construction rely on constant vigilance from everyone on the jobsite. To combat safety incidents, we rely on the person next to us to have full awareness and to have our back when we focus our attention on something. While we focus on a task, we trust our teammate to lock on fully and be prepared to call out or make a move to save us from injury or death. If they are not in a good state of mind, we need to know because it could compromise the entire operation. Couldn’t the same be said for mental health? Shouldn’t we know if someone is out of place, even a little?
Per my usual disclaimer, I do not offer a complete solution to the problem at hand, rather a fundamental starting point to combat something often overlooked. I have often described my time as a catcher for my high school baseball team. I learned to respond to each pitcher adaptively, because I learned about them extensively. This approach has the potential to save lives. As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression, I can attest that often on my bad days I just longed for someone to reach out and ask me if I was OK so that I could express that I was not. I longed for someone to have empathy instead of just assuming I was always OK.
As I come to the end of my cup of coffee and the last few lines for this month, if I could offer only one tool for your leadership toolbox, it would be empathy. All the conversations and issues that have emerged in our world over the last 24 months are difficult. They invoke a variety of emotions among all of us. Leaders, however, put aside emotion and seek always what is best for the people and the mission. In doing this, leaders ensure that, despite disagreements and difficult situations, everyone comes through the other side to see the light of another dawn. Nothing we face is ever worth more than the gift of life. As you turn back for the jobsite, I encourage you to reach out to someone today. Even if you are not friends at the bar on Friday, we are all human. Nothing we face is so insurmountable as to warrant having to hear we lost another person that we could have saved, and having to watch a leader experience the worst day possible.