I spent over 30 years counseling “peak performers” at the University of Michigan. Over 400 of these student-athletes would go on to professional careers in the four major sports, including seven-time Superbowl champion Tom Brady and Heisman Trophy winners Desmond Howard and Charles Woodson. Some 120 became Olympians, including 23-time Gold Medalist Michael Phelps.
Whether we’re talking about professional athletes or top executives, we’re all on a similar quest to be peak performers at whatever we do. An essential part of that goal is finding the right ways to achieve our own level of mental fitness–but the obstacles we now face as we try to protect and preserve our mental health seem greater than ever. With so much change and disruption in the business world–ongoing layoffs and offshoring, remote/hybrid work issues, and the looming specter of artificial intelligence–it’s becoming increasingly difficult to master the mental game and stay sane in an insane world.
The good news? Issues surrounding mental health are generally becoming destigmatized. High-profile athletes are taking the lead in raising awareness and helping everyone understand just how important it is to seek help when you need it–no matter who you are and how great you are at what you do. It’s a hugely positive step in the right direction.
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history. I met him when he was just 19 years old when Coach Bob Bowman brought him to train at Michigan. He went on to stun the world at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but that’s not why I’m so proud of him. I’m most proud of Michael for what he’s done since retiring, becoming a true leader in mental health advocacy, being totally open about his own battles, and encouraging everyone to take advantage of the mental health resources that are available.
I never had the pleasure of working with Olympic gymnast Simone Biles–but she too made it crystal clear to everyone in the world how much she valued and prioritized her own mental health over any athletic achievements, even when it’s one of the hardest things we can ever do.
We’re talking here about mental health as a genuine medical issue. As much progress as we’ve made in understanding it, there are still some people and some organizations who fail to see mental health in that context. But just like athletic institutions are finally starting to attend to the needs of their peak performers, seeing them as whole people and not just goal-scorers or medal-winners, enlightened CEOs are also moving beyond seeing their employees as just the producers of products.
Just as importantly, we need to start seeing the CEOs themselves, as well as the CFOs, VPs, and all the members of our leadership teams, as high-performance executive athletes. The mental demands on these individuals must be acknowledged–and every company must invest in the resources to support them. There’s just no excuse not to prioritize the mental health of everyone on your team.
Most importantly, when leaders recognize their own mental health needs, they become so much better equipped to recognize the needs of everyone else in the organization–and to show everyone that it’s always okay to ask for help. I worked with one company where the CEO made it known to everyone that he was using the employee assistance program. He easily could have done this in secret, but he wanted to send a message that he personally valued this program, that the program was truly helping him, and that it was available to everyone, whenever it was needed.
As a leader, it’s the best message you can send. Like any consultant who helps you enhance and maintain your performance, a mental health counselor should be viewed the same way. They’re consultants to help you reach your full potential. And as with any consultant, if it’s not a good fit, you can always fire them and get another one who can better handle the assignment. This is how you take care of everyone in your organization and help them to stay sane in an insane world.
Greg Harden is a peak mental and performance coach and the author of STAY SANE IN AN INSANE WORLD: How to Control the Controllables and Thrive
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