Leaders suffering with depression lead two distinct lives.

Life on the inside is where we acknowledge our depression, likely, only to ourselves. The descriptor that comes to mind for most of us is the terrifying feeling of hopelessness. We are waiting for disaster to befall us. We wallow in self-doubt, low self-esteem, and have a negative view of life.

On the outside, we exhibit the appearance of strength, positiveness, and a never say die attitude. In essence, we push through the personal negative to lead our organizations. Authenticity is the first casualty of depression; and it’s exhausting work.

In a confidential survey, forty-nine percent (49%) of leaders surveyed claim to struggle with mental illness – primarily depression. If the results had identified a physical medical condition we’d be viewing it as an epidemic. And yet, the vast majority of leaders won’t openly admit to it.  The stigma of weakness is one of the main factors for this behavior. Heaven forbid the team finds out the leader struggles with depression. Imagine the catastrophe that would ensue, if suppliers and customers found out! The irony is, if she or he discloses they are struggling with a major physical disease, chances are they would be treated with care and sympathy – not the case with depression.

I have owned and led several large and successful construction organizations in the rough and tumble and male-orientated world of construction, where strength of character, stamina, and aggressiveness are the perceived hallmarks of a successful leader; weakness is not tolerated. I never once acknowledged my own depression – I feared the possible ramifications of disclosure.

Though many of us achieve success, not disclosing the condition comes at a great cost to ourselves and our families.

So what can we do to improve our lives?

Aside from therapy, medication, and techniques to quell the beast of depression; I found one activity to be of profound benefit – membership in a peer group organization. Peer group organizations bring together like-minded leaders to work together, share experiences, and help each other to achieve success. I have participated as a member, recruiter, and leader of leadership peer groups. Group members are non-competing, vendor relationships are discouraged, and confidentiality is non-negotiable. Trust in each other is the hallmark of the relationships developed in a peer group, and trust takes time. In my personal experience I participated marginally in the first three months of membership. It was only when I experienced a major partnership issue in my business and brought it to the table that I realized the value. The level of care and understanding of my fellow members astounded me! I lived in a leadership vacuum in my business; the group opened my eyes to possibilities I would have not otherwise considered. The role of the leader can be a very lonely place. Opening up about our business challenges is foreign to us. Yet, after I did it for the first time I felt liberated.

And it doesn’t end at receiving recommendations for solutions of issues. Entrepreneurial leaders we are generally only accountable to themselves. Within the peer group environment members must agree to be accountable for their actions, to the group. At first, this can be a very uncomfortable position to be in. After an issue has been presented, other members share experiences. The member is expected to declare the direction he or she is going to take to resolve the issue. At the subsequent meeting the member is expected to report what progress has been made. A highly functioning peer group has a carefrontational attitude, leaving little on the table. Apart from business issues, heart breaking personal issues are also presented.

In a group I participated in, one of our most vocal and positive members (I’ll call him Steve, not his real name) told us he had an issue to table. This was surprising, as Steve rarely brought up any struggles – he seemed to have his business and personal life under control. Steve told us that his young son, Bobby, (not his real name) was autistic. He described the little guy as a happy child and yet Bobby wouldn’t speak when spoken to; he would spend the majority of play time with Matchbox and Hotwheels cars. And yet, when they went for rides in the car, Bobby could tell his dad the make and model of the cars on the road. Steve was struggling with the life they were living, and he teared up describing the love he had for his child, and how helpless he felt. This was not the person we had become accustomed to – raw and vulnerable.

And yet, this wasn’t the issue Steve wanted to present; his wife was expecting another child and had just recently found out the child was also diagnosed with autism. Two autistic children would require round-the-clock care and the options available in the city were not adequate. He was considering selling the business and moving to a state that had facilities and professionals that would support his family. The silence in the room was deafening, as this was certainly not what any of us expected to hear. At this point, the group Chair called for a break and asked us to give some thought as to what we could share to help Steve and his wife. When we returned, it was obvious we were struggling with what to say. Then, Steve told us he wasn’t looking for help – he just needed someone to talk to…. and he picked the 15 of us to do it with. His behavior demonstrated the closeness the group had developed. Steve and his wife hadn’t even informed the family about the situation. In just talking about it, he felt a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders. N.B. I have used this story while recruiting members, with Steve’s approval of course.

Apart from the exponential intelligence of a peer group, the learning opportunities available deliver an exceptional ROI. Depending on the organization, world class speakers and subject matter experts are available to members on a monthly and quarterly basis. Yet, the most profound learning comes from the members real-world issues. This type of experiential learning is priceless.

Isolation is one of the most impactful experiences a mentally healthy leader deals with. Add depressive feelings to it and it can become debilitating. Membership in a peer group proves that you don’t need to be alone. Depression can call into question the leader’s ability to make good decisions. Being able to talk to the group about tough decisions that need to be made can deliver an amazing return on investment. Issues can range from developing a job description for a CFO to reviewing a buy/sell agreement worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Rarely, did a month go by where I didn’t table an issue to discuss with the group.

My most profound experience is somewhat similar to Steve’s and yet very different. There was a period of time when I disconnected from my group. My personal depression had deepened, and I was in a tough place. I had disconnected from family, friends, and though at work each day, I was disconnecting from the business. I didn’t attend two consecutive group meetings. I also begged off the one-to-one coaching sessions I was to receive each month. My fellow members sent me emails and called to find out what was going on and I ignored them.

One day, our group leader, Brian walked in, unannounced, to my office. When our receptionist informed me, I told her to tell him I was too busy to see him. He told her he had all day and would wait until I had time. Finally, I acquiesced, and we met. With his gentle encouragement I told him what was up. I explained I was struggling with depression and the business was suffering. Brian was, apart from my wife, the first person I had told of my condition. Once we finished our session, he encouraged me to come to the next meeting and of course, our conversation was confidential. He reminded me I was the keeper of the truth in our group and my honesty was missed. And here I was being inauthentic myself.

I was filled with trepidation as I entered the meeting room and to my surprise, my fellow members greeted me back with open arms and without judgement.

As is customary at the beginning of the meeting each member has 5 minutes to present a personal update and accountabilities from the previous meeting. Our leader started with the member to my left which left me to speak last! When it came to my turn he asked how the past couple of months had gone. I sat there not knowing what to say and then decided to jump in. I told them everything – going well past my 5 minutes. After I was finished, Laura, who was sitting across from me asked what medication I was on! Even though I hadn’t expected the question, I told her it was Effexor. Her reply? Me too! What dose are you on? I would not have believed Laura struggled with depression. William, who was sitting to her left, raised his hand and told the group he had suffered with depression for over 30 years and with the exception of his wife, this was the first time he had admitted to it. What followed was a spirited conversation on mental illness and therapy. And, as in Steve’s case, I felt the burden I was dealing with significantly reduce. Towards the end of the meeting Lou, another member, wanted to table an issue. We were all somewhat happily envious of Lou, as he had recently sold his company to Microsoft for a substantial sum. He told us that even though he should be on cloud nine he felt the same depressive feelings we had talked about; he was constantly on edge, very stressed, and anxious. We advised him to seek help with a therapist. And of course, we were available to talk – anytime.

We must normalize the conversation around depression and leadership. Too many of us are suffering alone – needlessly!

Not all peer group organizations are created equal. Some organizations are for profit and others are non-profits. Some meet for a full day and others for a half day. Certain organizations offer coaching, and some don’t. Most offer resource speakers and all offer a confidential environment that leaders, whether struggling with depression or not, need to take advantage of. The ROI can be extraordinary.

Check out the following peer group organizations, in alphabetical order, online.

CEO Global Network                                North America

EO Entrepreneurs’ Organization          Worldwide

Mackay CEO Forums                                Canada                           

The Alternative Board                             North America

Vistage International                               Worldwide

Young Presidents Organization            Worldwide

A few years ago, I was interviewed by a peer group organization. One of the questions asked was: How would you describe the meeting experience? My response – My meeting is my monthly mental health day. Truer worlds could not have been spoken.

John Panigas is the author of Crazy, Who Me? My Journey As a Leader Overcoming Depression. John provides workshops, coaching and in-house mental wellbeing programs to leaders and organizations that realize there is both a personal and economical cost of depression to the team and the business. His methodology highlights a tool called “The COD (Cost of Depression) Calculator©” which calculates the current cost of depression to your business.

John can be reached at [email protected] and www.johnpanigas.com