A surprising number of productive and valuable workers struggle with some sort of mental health challenge. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that aspiring leaders need to recognize that these conditions can help give some folks interesting competitive advantages.
I need you to trust me for a minute. Please go buy and read Jenny Lawson’s new book if you haven’t already. It’ll help you to grow as a leader. Seriously.
If you work in the tech sector, you might not be familiar with Jenny even under her nom de guerre of ‘The Bloggess’. She’s not a tech visionary, or a programmer, or a venture capitalist. Rather, she’s an independent writer living out in nowhere, Texas who crafts painfully funny stories about her struggle to live with rheumatoid arthritis, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder, depression and some sort of powerful anxiety disorder. She’s a bit off-the-beaten-path, both literally and figuratively. If you’re not already interested in topics like interesting people, comedy, or blogging (like I am), then you might never have entered her orbit. That being said, you should definitely give her work a look because she can potentially teach you something new about the people you manage.
Leadership is the art and science (mostly art) of getting people to do things that you need them to do that they’re not inclined to do of their own accord.  Therefore, logically, in order to be a good leader, you need to get really good at understanding people – both in terms of general concepts (like the social sciences) and specific individuals (like Bob in Accounting). You need to learn how and why people do the things that they do, so that you’ll understand how best to motivate them and how to leverage the unique skills and abilities that they bring to your team.
Jenny Lawson’s columns and books  give the reader insight into what it’s like to function in the working world when you’re grappling with one or more significant mental health issues. The fact that she’s a New York Times bestselling author proves that major MH conditions aren’t automatically a barrier to professional success. They’re formidable challenges, but challenges that might be mitigated or even converted to an advantage with the right role, right job conditions, right support, and some genuine compassion. Jenny and her publisher obviously figured this out.
Here’s the thing: a great many people in the modern workforce bring some sort of mental health challenge with them to work. They acquire them as a side effect of surviving a trauma, inherit them from quirky genes, pick them up as byproducts of a medication or illness and earn them as a conditioned response by way of surviving a truly terrible boss. Odds are good that a significant percentage of your team have issues that colour their work experience. Knowing your people means making a concerted effort to understand what makes each person that person. Learn their issues, how they manifest, how they might be leveraged productively, and how they affect the owner’s life, both inside and outside of the office.
Yes, I’m firmly in the camp that believes that a good leader must know his or her people as individuals. I’ve studied the methodologies that opine that a leader should maintain a significant emotional abstraction from his or her workers so that decisions can be made dispassionately, based entirely on a worker’s job function or output, rather than being based on personal character or unique circumstances. I reject those approaches as self-serving twaddle; treating people like machines only benefits the heartless cretin residing on the top of the organizational chart while making life a living hell for the people subject to those leaders’ casual cruelties. I’ll have none of that, thanks. I know that I want to follow leaders that I can respect, and I figure that anyone following me deserves that in turn.
Anyway, one of the interesting conditions that a great many people bring to the table is clinical depression. I’ve worked with a lot of people subject to that condition and I’ve had the chance to watch some of those people turn their dark negativity into a powerful workplace analysis tool – in much the same fashion that a powerful laser can be focused and controlled to serve as an amazingly precise scalpel. In my experience, a worker that comes to work touched with depression tends to have a default starting attitude towards any new initiative, policy, product or idea as one step below ‘neutral’ on the interest spectrum. They’re always a little negative, but that’s because they can see the inherent flaws in any idea. They want things to work out, but they’re often terrifyingly accurate at spotting problems.
I’ve heard leaders viciously denounce these folks for having a ‘bad attitude’; they say that they don’t appreciate what they’re getting when they bring the depressed guy or gal to the party. I see it and I adore it: a person who can zero in on the inherent flaws in a plan is (to me) kind of like an explosives-sniffing canine – when everyone else sees an empty street and assumes that they have a clear path to victory, the helpful hound takes a glance around and points out exactly where the giant, plan-killing, roadside bomb is hidden. Surrounding yourself exclusively with people who share your unbridled enthusiasm for your new idea is gratifying to your ego… right up until an unexpected or unfactored risk cripples your plan in a gout of (hopefully metaphorical) flame and panic.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that bitter or perpetually negative people have magic powers of prognostication. Some people are just bitter jerks and should be treated as such. Rather, I am suggesting that a person who has learned to ‘ride the waves’ of powerful depression likely have spent years (if not decades) perceiving the world around them very differently than an unafflicted person has. When your brain is primed to expect everything that involves you to end terribly, a strange thing happens: your own vulnerability to the confirmation bias heuristic means that you subconsciously place greater emphasis on evidence that supports your negative outlook while downplaying evidence that disproves your expectation. Over time, that exposure to certain clues primes such a worker to recognize those same signs when they manifest in other projects, the same way that an experienced bomb-tech learns to recognize the signs of a concealed IED by colour, shape, and shadow.
As a practical (and personal) example of this, I once got dragged into a working group from our national office that said that they intended to achieve ‘significant’ cost savings by consolidating IT support groups for business groups that shared the same campus or general geographic area. The pompous git presenting the plan was slick, smarmy, and reeking of ambition. As soon as he took the podium to present his idea, I could tell that his ‘plan’ was an ill-conceived disaster. I fumed from slide number three up until the end. Everyone in the executive briefing room could plainly see the disdain on my face – I wasn’t making any effort to hide it. When we finally concluded the man’s preso, the presenter took my glare as a personal affront.
‘You seem upset about something, Mr… ah… Hubert,’ he said.
I nodded. ‘Yes, I am. This proposal isn’t going to work here.’
The honourable gentleman turned a bit red, but went on the attack. Around us, the executives and senior managers cringed. ‘That’s an unprofessional attitude, mister! This plan has already been vetted and approved at the highest levels. It’s addressed all of the contingencies that might have been a problem.’
I shrugged. ‘I don’t doubt that you spent a lot of time building your plan,’ I said. ‘But you didn’t research our location before you committed us to participate in it.’
The fellow smiled like a Disney villain. ‘You think you’re smarter than the top solutions architects in Washington D.C.?’
I waved away his posturing. ‘It’s not a matter of smart; it’s a matter of knowing the operating environment. I’ve been here for over a decade supporting these people, and I know how my part of the business functions.’
The bigwig sneered at me and said something condescending that, to be honest, I don’t remember clearly anymore. When he finished talking, I let him have both (wholly metaphorical) barrels:
- Our side of the campus featured a full-size voice switch that provided telephone service to our users. We owned and operated it from our data centre.
- The other side of the campus rented voice services from the owner of the office park. They didn’t own their own desk phones. To merge our two networks (as the fellow from D.C. had suggested) we’d need to run all new cables, buy new phones, and bring the other users over to our network… if we were the ones providing the service.
We could do this, I said, but only if the local support mission came to our IT department. We had to keep the voice switch exactly where it was. Otherwise, the whole initiative would collapse.
Both the big-shot and the facilities executive from the other group got indignant, and told me that I was wrong – the other IT team could simply forklift our voice switch over to their data centre and provide service to both sides of the campus without us. We’d all be made redundant.
I nodded. Yes, they could certainly do that. The sharks smiled…
I pointed out that they couldn’t legally do that. Our voice switch was a critical component in a Disaster Recovery solution that we’d launched to serve a different arm of the company several years prior. We hosted a 24/7 hot site with dedicated kit and a bunch of dedicated data circuits in our data centre. Our voice switch was committed under contract to that mission. Further, our contract required that our local engineers were available to be activated on mandatory overtime to support the partner’s DR mission on-demand. And thanks to a quirk of contracting law, the folks on the other side of the campus weren’t legally allowed to perform that work.
That DR mission meant that our data centre had to remain fully intact. That meant that our voice switch had to stay right where it was, as did all of our engineers. So, the fools from D.C. could cut our operation and give our functions over to the people on the other side of the car park if they wanted to… but the net gain would be a savings of less than three per cent on personnel costs, not 60 per cent as they’d gambled their careers on. Whoops!
After the furious outsiders stormed out (never to return), I got my tail crewed pretty harshly by my own upper management team for having an awful attitude. I wasn’t ‘seeing the big picture’, they said, and I was being ‘too negative’. I took their chastisement stoically and went back to work. The reality of the situation was that I went into the briefing expecting to see another in a long line of ill-considered plans, and that’s exactly what I found. I’d spotted the critical flaw in the design and called it out. I was right. Sorry if that hurt someone’s feelz, but truth is truth.
Here’s the thing about clinically depressed workers: just because they have a preternatural ability to ‘sniff out’ flaws and weaknesses in an idea doesn’t mean that their generally negativity will prevent them from being a strong asset on those plans. That sort of fellow can actually be a tremendous asset… once you work the bugs out of the plan.
A person who is struggling to find hope and meaning in a frequently disappointing world is actually more likely to enthusiastically embrace a good plan than his or her relatively ‘normal’ counterpart. If or when you can present your depression-touched team members with a solid, achievable idea, they’ll usually light up – you’re giving people mired in difficulty a virtual lifeline. You’re providing a chance to actually make something worthwhile come alive – that’s a tremendously exciting opportunity for a guy or gal that’s accustomed to despair. They’ll take that solid plan and work the hell out of it, and your team will be better off as a result. Nothing bonds people together like shared success.
There are lots more potentially-valuable conditions in the human psyche. A good leader makes the investment in his or her people to learn as much as they practically can about each person as a worthwhile individual. They tend to get better results, and they get them more often, by demonstrating sincere personal interest in every member of their team. Part of that process involves learning how to perceive the world the way that a teammate perceived it… which brings us nicely back around to reading Jenny Lawson’s book. That book I mentioned in the opening that you should really go pick up when you’re done with the next paragraph.
People can be awesome. They’re often funny, warm, prickly, difficult, confounding, impossible, and wonderful. They’re always interesting. Try to lead your people from a position of respectful curiosity: love them for who they are, even if you don’t especially like them. I highly recommend it.
 I’ve heard other definitions, but that’s the one that my favourite military science professor preferred, and it resonates with me.
 Her first was a great read called ‘Let’s Pretend This Never Happened’, which sounds like an excellent corporate vision statement if I’ve heard one.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.