Leadership can be a lonely road and one where gleaning wisdom from those who have walked the leadership path can shorten your journey to being a successful leader. I have been in the fire service for 38 years and have certainly had my share of lessons. Here are the top four that I want to share with you. I hope you find them useful in the coming year to strengthen your leadership regarding mental health.
Lesson 1 – Mission, Men, Me
I have a wall hanging in my office as a reminder of good leadership which has three tiers to it.
It faces me every morning when I walk into my office, reminding me that it’s not about me; it’s about the mission, and to get to the mission, I have to take care of my people. When it comes to mental health, leaders need to take care of their people. However, sometimes you do have to think about yourself first. That probably goes against every leadership principle that exists, but if you’re not mentally healthy, you can’t take care of those who serve next to you. If you fail in the fundamental area of self-care, your mission will never be accomplished.
The ability to stand back and realize you need to put yourself first sometimes is what separates real leaders from pretenders. I call them pretenders because they always must pretend they’re in control and have all the answers. It’s their way of proving their own status. They exhibit strength and bravery when, in reality, real courage is knowing when to reach out for help. Honestly, it took me a long time to understand that revelation and then put it into practice. I see the value of putting my physical, emotional, and spiritual health first to take care of my family, my firefighters, and to accomplish the mission.
Lesson 2 – Seek Professional Help For You/Others
Do you and your firefighters have a therapist you can turn to when faced with mental health concerns? Someone you have met, not just a name at the end of an employee assistance program business card. Contact that therapist and consider inviting that person to come in once a year and meet with your firefighters. The goal is to acquaint the therapist with precisely what your personnel do. How about asking the therapist to spend some time observing your firefighters at work as another tool to benefit all as to the day-to-day stressors?
After my son Sean died by suicide, I turned to a therapist who knew Sean and, more impotantly, she was familiar with the fire service. She made me face my own demons of guilt and self-doubt through understanding that my profession and my own heroic persona were adding to my difficulty with mentally beginning the healing process. She hit me head-on: “Take the f… cape off!” I had to put my cape down and realize that I was not Superman, and I also was not God, and both of those realities were okay!
Her experience with my profession was instrumental in opening my heart to hear what she was saying. I believed that she knew how I felt. Seek out mental health professionals who have at least a basic knowledge of the challenges you and your employees face daily. If a firefighter feels no connection with the therapist, the likelihood of success is significantly diminished. From the therapist’s viewpoint, I would imagine it also is challenging to treat people when you do not understand what their occupation entails.
One month, almost to the date, on which I lost my son, one of my firefighters had the courage to come to me with a severe mental health challenge. Fortunately, I had a good idea of what he was struggling with; more importantly, I knew a trained professional to call. You never know when that call for help might come at home or at your business.
Lesson 3 – You Affect Your Firefighter Culture
You can affect how accepting the culture is with battling mental health issues both at work and at home. When I did not share with my department my struggles and those of my son, I sent a message: don’t talk about mental illness because it is something to be ashamed of. I had an opportunity to model the progressive notion that mental health is just as important as any of the physical challenges we all face. Instead of seizing that opportunity, I shied away from it. I rationalized it by thinking I was saving everyone from experiencing that pain. I can tell you that the reactions I’ve received since my son’s death have reinforced the fact that many people in various professions suffer similar mental health challenges in their families.
If I had been more public about my son’s illness, I could have nurtured the culture of being open about mental health issues not only in my department, but also in neighboring organizations. I am not proposing that everyone should bare their most private challenges. I am simply saying that the concern for and maintenance of the mental health side of most professions is poor. We had better wake up and understand that mental illness is a challenge for our employees’ well-being as well as our own. Just the increase in documented cases of PTSD across many vocations should raise our antenna.
It has been more than fourteen years since I last hugged my son. My road to recovery is ongoing. Although it has been painful, I have made great strides. That is because of my faith, my therapist, my wife, and my sons. I also need to recognize the members of my department at the time, the Hinsdale (Illinois) Fire Department, and my friends throughout the fire service. The existence of that support group across many spectrums for you or one of your people will result in how your organizational culture looks at and reacts to those with mental health issues.
Lesson 4 – Stand Up And Be Your Best
I understand those feelings of depression and powerlessness that you may feel when dealing with mental health issues. I have watched what the ravages of cancer can do. Stand up, so people will know you don't want to see them fail, whether it's cancer or mental illness. Create a culture that recognizes mental health issues as a physical illness, and I'm going to stand up for you. I'm going to stand next to you, and be proud to do it.
Many people manage mental illness just as they do cancer and go on to lead amazing lives. We must create an atmosphere where our people know it's okay to share their burdens without judgment. That is critical to the process. More people need to role-model that behavior if we want to smash the stigma of mental illness.
We need to make mental illness recognized as a physical illness and a priority in our profession. We must always stand up to do the right thing so that people who are suffering, no matter what the illness, realize we don't want to see them fail.
Patrick J. Kenny has been a member of the fire service for 38 years, a chief officer for over 20 years, just having retired as the fire chief in Western Springs, Illinois. He recently authored 'Taking the Cape Off: How to Lead Through Mental Illness, Unimaginable Grief and Loss.'