Leading in a Depression
The night before last, I excused myself from my wife's birthday party a little early because I wasn't feeling well. Last night I went upstairs early again, suffering the same symptoms. As I sat in front of the television, I realized that I was experiencing anxiety and depression. I confess that I cheered myself up by silently singing the theme song to Frazier—"Well baby, I hear the blues a-callin', tossed salads and scrambled eggs. Well maybe I seem a bit confused, well maybe, but I've got you pegged." I think of myself as a positive person, and I keep a good sense of humor, but like most everyone else, I fight an occasional bout of anxiety and depression. It usually hits me the week after Christmas and can last a month, and it sometimes hits at other times of the year as well. I knew, however, that this current depression didn't come from the regular sources.
As I called my experience by its name—an important part of beginning to feel better—I thought again about the stages of grief identified in the Kubler-Ross theory. Depression follows anger in the processing of loss. I've heard it said that depression comes from anger turned inward, but it seems to involve all that and more. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens our health, lives, and enterprises. At first you deny it, then you get angry, and then you get depressed about it. While I feel like I have a good handle on the personal implications of this moment, I confess to feeling deeply the threat it raises against the people I lead.
Depression can challenge us badly enough at the merely personal level. But in times like these, it comes at us in a far more complex way, hitting the people we care about, live with, work with, and form a society with. Institutions can face depression too. When economic ruin hits a society, it is called a depression. The personal dimension of depression is psychological; the institutional dimension is sociological; the societal dimension is economic. We might define all three differently, but the symptoms feel crushingly similar—dark thinking, hopelessness, irrational behavior, crippling anxiety.
So how should leaders work in a depression?
- As they say on airplanes, put your own oxygen mask on first, then help the people around you. Leaders who do not take care of themselves will not have the resiliency for the long haul. Feeling depressed does not disqualify you from leadership, but it does require you to control it and not act it out. If you fail to take care of yourself, you won't succeed in helping others. I have always managed depression by talking to my closest friends. Others may need to seek professional or even medical help. Figuring out whether your depression is purely situational and temporary or physically rooted and longer-term will help you know how to deal with it. But do something about it now.
- Lean into your faith. Although some may see faith as a power to avoid hard times, it actually serves its proper role in getting us through hard times. I wish praying, worshipping, and reading the Scriptures would always make depression go away, but it often does not. Pray anyway. Find in your faith the confidence to keep pushing forward despite your feelings. Base your behavior on God's truth and remain faithful to the direction God has pointed you in. Discipleship, according to the philosopher Dallas Willard, involves "a long obedience in the same direction." Keep moving yourself and your enterprise toward the fulfillment of God's mission and "empowered engagement with human need." Keep serving others as God has called you to do, and your own concerns will fall back into a secondary plane.
- Be compassionate in dealing with the people around you who may also be suffering depression. Keeping people busy will help them focus on something besides their feelings, but overwhelming them with work may rob them of time for engaging in self-care. Try to find the right balance between the two. If you realize that fellow workers are suffering depression, make sure they have access to resources and services that will help them deal with it. Ramp up your human resources office at a time like this one.
- Stay rational and avoid dictatorial behavior. When anyone feels depressed, an unduly negative outlook can easily set in. Stay focused on the facts, and test your perception of the facts with other people. The more you consult with others, the more they will help you see reality or potential futures. Let your colleagues help you decide what to do. As our Provost Jim Heugel likes to say at Northwest, "Friends don't let friends drive drunk." Nobody at NU ever shows up drunk, of course, but I think his point shines through. If you see that someone's thinking has run off course, gently help them back onto the track. In the same way, let your colleagues help you keep your own thoughts and feelings in check.
- Realize your personal and institutional health will contribute to the greater good. As mentioned above, an economic depression differs from personal depression, but it takes large-scale depressed thinking in a society to turn an economic recession into a long-term depression. The healthier we keep ourselves and our institutions—whether in civil society, business, or government—the more we will contribute to society as a whole. We can play a key role in ensuring that this time of massive disruption, destruction, and depression does not turn into a decade-long depression like my grandparents lived through in the 1930s.
Don't feel embarrassed if you have experienced depression. In a crisis like this one, it certifies you as a normal human being. By overcoming depression personally, you will put yourself in prime position to lead your institutions (family, work, etc.) toward the better day that will inexorably come.