Can a psychologically unhealthy leader lead effectively?

The answer is “no.” At least not on a consistent and long-term basis.

If we understand this, then it becomes paramount to (1) understand what psychological health is, and (2) be able to measure psychological health in a useful way for both development and evaluation purposes.

Psychological Health ≈ Psychological Flexibility

Good news! There is a relatively new construct coming out of psychology that I believe closely captures what psychological health is and it comes with a measure that can be used for both development and evaluation.

This construct is psychological flexibility.

It has been used by psychologists to promote and assess one’s ability to effectively handle and navigate difficult or challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, and experiences.

What is Psychological Flexibility?

Psychological flexibility is loosely defined as a person’s ability to:

  • Adapt to dynamic situational demands,
  • Effectively summon and direct their mental resources,
  • Shift perspective with agility, and
  • Balance competing desires and demands.

When someone is psychologically flexible, they can:

  • Calibrate their responses to the here-and-now situational demands,
  • Focus their attention and direct their energy effectively,
  • Take the long-term perspective even in the midst of emotional turmoil, and
  • Behave in ways that honor their core values & facilitate the attainment of their meaningful goals (particularly when they do not immediately feel aligned)

The Role of Psychological Flexibility in Leadership

Can you imagine how troubling it could be if a leader struggles to adapt, mismanages their energy, gets mired in short-term emotional needs, and inconsistently lives up to values?

It is these types of things that are at the root of the following dismal leadership statistics:

The reality is that we have a lot of leaders out there that are not as psychologically healthy as they need to be to lead effectively.

The Psychologically Flexibility Continuum

There is a continuum of psychological flexibility that ranges from psychologically inflexible to psychologically flexible.

Those who are psychologically inflexible feel and are continually buffeted by their uncontrollable and feared internal experiences. They possess little ability to effectively navigate rough waters and generally at the mercy of the waves, storms, and currents of their personal sea.

Those who are psychologically flexible are able to stay (1) in control of themselves and (2) present, despite negative or challenging feelings, thoughts, or experiences. They possess the ability to effectively navigate rough waters, allowing them to roll with and effectively progress through the waves, storms, and currents of their personal sea.

(I will dive into the specific dimensions of each side of this continuum in my next post).

Why is Psychological Flexibility So Important?

Psychological flexibility is important for a wide variety of reasons, which include the following:

  1. Psychologists are increasingly finding that an individual’s mental health and behavioral effectiveness is influenced more by how he/she relates to their feelings than by their actual feelings (e.g., how negative they are). Stated differently, the negative effect of negative experiences, feelings, and thoughts is contingent upon individuals’ psychological flexibility.
  2. Psychologists have found that psychological flexibility is predictive of more adaptive interpersonal functioning and lower levels of conflict. Inflexibility is predictive of greater conflict and maladaptive processes.
  3. Psychological flexibility is a hallmark of psychological health and agility. Psychological inflexibility is the hallmark of neurosis.
  4. As a whole, psychological flexibility an essential life skill that spans both intrapersonal and interpersonal functioning.

In the next two articles, I will be discussing: