Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness experienced by people that have previously experienced horrific situations such as war or catastrophic events. Though not as horrible as experiencing this conflict, I would submit a form of PTSD runs ramped in the business community – Leadership Traumatic Stress Disorder – LTSD.

Wartime PTSD is a disorder in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. The condition may last months or years, with triggers that can bring back memories of the trauma accompanied by intense emotional and physical reactions. Symptoms may include nightmares or unwanted memories of the trauma, avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the trauma, heightened reactions, and in many cases resulting in stress, anxiety, and ultimately depression.

Though a term not typically associated with the business community, it comes about due to business trauma. I would submit LTSD is a daily occurrence for those that lead organizations. And I say this in deference to those that serve in the armed forces and subsequently in warlike situations.

The experience of war and killing is not a natural human endeavor and is executed by a small number of people worldwide. We were not emotionally, psychologically, and physically predisposed to take the life of another. There are cultures, due to circumstances, that have developed warlike tendencies for survival. Some will claim that business is war. Instead of taking lives, we take out competitors to win opportunities; this is the nature of competition. In combat, taking the higher ground or real estate is the key. In business, mitigating and reducing the size of the opponent is critical to winning market share. Typically, the more we win, the larger we grow. Growth is one of the largest drivers of business success.

The loss of key team members, the loss of a critical customer, and the inability to finance operations are the three essential factors of experiencing LTSD. Though rarely described as such, LTSD is a crucial driver of leadership depression. Every day that we wake up and go to work is like going on patrol. We don’t always know what we are going to encounter. We need to be constantly vigilant of our surroundings – the business landscape, and we must have our heads on a pivot. We are mindful of protecting and increasing the ground we won yesterday – our market share. We sacrifice ourselves for the team, for without them, we wouldn’t exist. We need to make sure we know who our enemies are – our competitors and where they stand. We look for the edge in ‘weaponry’ – our people, our competencies, and our methodologies – our secret sauces.

The constant threat of losing ground – our market share – is frequently on our minds. The armed forces are dealing with an epidemic of PTSD. As a result of the ongoing COVID pandemic, so is the business world. So what do we do to mitigate LTSD? 

One typical human reaction is to cocoon and hideout. The flipside is to ignore science and attempt to live our lives as though the virus doesn’t exist. Both views have substantial constituencies, and the consequences have been dire. The government, authorities, and the business community have not reached alignment with a comprehensive strategy. Some business leaders are resisting, only to find that over time the virus does not discriminate. This has led to social distancing for teams, and that is having a detrimental effect on organizations. In that vein, thank goodness for teleconferencing. Before the pandemic, the use of this technology was sporadic. It is now the lifeline and the key for businesses, regardless of size, to communicate with the team, suppliers, and customers. Our business lives have changed forever.

What hasn’t changed is the loneliness of leadership; it has been exacerbated. Leaders are expected to have the answers, even though we may feel as lost as our team. So what is the solution? In my business life, while struggling with LTSD, I have participated in one activity that provided clarity and comradery – membership in a business peer group.

Business owners and leaders have access to several high-quality peer group organizations. Organizations such as VISTAGE, TEC, EO, YPO, TAB, and CEO Global Network provide entrepreneurs and business leaders a place of safety and confidentiality not found in any other business environment. I referred to the monthly meeting day as my ‘mental health day.’ My group setting was the one place where I could talk about all that was working and, more importantly, what was not working in my business life, all in a confidential forum. One of the most profound meetings I attended was when encouraged by our Group Chair, I first admitted to my struggle with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Although I was ashamed and fearful of admitting to my issue, my disclosure caused three other members struggling with MDD to admit to the disease for the first time. It brought deeper and richer conversations to the table.

Today’s current business environment has changed radically from what it was as little as eight months ago. We are facing challenges we could not have imagined a year ago. Sorting it out on our own is difficult, as all we know is what we know, and that can be limiting. Imagine having a brain trust of 8-16 business leaders with differing viewpoints and experiences dealing with the same struggles? My business peer group experience is decades-long, as a member, group Chair/Leader, and now a resource speaker. Peer group membership or any activity that allows for fellowship and sharing of struggles and successes is one of the best investments a leader can make – especially in today’s socio-economic and business environments.

The truth is we don’t have all the answers, and we delude ourselves if we think so.

In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki tells the story of a contest found at most county fairs in England in the 1800s. For a few shillings, bets were made on the weight of the prized ox on display. The person that came the closest to the actual weight was awarded the butchered animal. Surowiecki sourced a significant number of the actual ledgers that listed the guesses. In most cases, the winner was usually reasonably accurate. Yet, in all cases, when the total number of guesses were averaged, the result was striking, generally within 5% of the actual weight, substantially better than the winning guess.

The problem-solving capacity of several individuals pales in comparison to the group’s exponential power working together.

John Panigas is the author of Crazy, Who Me? the biographical account of John’s leadership journey while struggling with crippling depression. He provides workshops, coaching, and in-house mental wellbeing programs for leaders and organizations that realize there are personal and financial costs of depression and mental illnesses to the team and the business. John’s workshop, What is the Cost of Depression to You and Your Business, features the Cost of Depression Calculator. This tool calculates the financial impact of depression and mental illness on you and your business.

For more information, John can be reached at [email protected] or 703.946.2399