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May is both mental health and trauma awareness month and I’d like to talk about these things as they relate to leadership. If you’ve been through the Peer Voice Project this is not new territory for you but either way, it’s worth revisiting.

When doing some research on mental health and leadership, what typically comes up is the impact of stress on mental health. When famous people share their experiences it’s often to show that they too struggle with mental health and we applaud them for their success in dealing with these challenges. This is wonderful, and it can go a long way in decreasing stigma, but it’s usually about how they succeed in spite of their challenges (whether they are a CEO or a movie star). But what if people are successful because of their mental health challenges? Whether it’s creativity and innovation, or resiliency, or knowing how to deal with a crisis…whether it’s the mental health challenge itself, or your experiences in navigating it, perhaps it’s all what makes you perfectly suited for leadership. We could even spend some time debating the word “challenges” around mental health. Just because you see, experience, or navigate the world differently, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a challenge, and you certainly don’t have to label it an “illness” (how you define your experiences should always be your choice). Perhaps it’s only a challenge because of the way culture perceives difference.

In an article on leadership and mental health – based on his book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness – Nassir Ghaemi writes, “My recent research has suggested that in times of crisis, it is sometimes those who are seen as quirky, odd or with a mental disorder that show the greatest leadership.” While I’m not a fan of some of his language choices, Ghaemi understands and illustrates that the very traits or behaviors that others see as problematic, can actually be a leader’s greatest strengths.

The same goes for those who have experienced trauma. In her article, “How Women Leaders Become Empowered By Healing Trauma”, Janét Aizenstros states: “This is also the fundamental reason why women who have suffered through a traumatic experience make for empowered leaders. When the issue has been faced down and overcome, we are able to grown into better equipped human beings. Our emotional capacity grows. The next time we’re in a similar situation we will be able to tackle the problem. In short, a woman able to overcome trauma is able to overcome many other things in life with the same tact and resourcefulness they have already learned.”

As so often happens, we come back around to the idea of being strength-based. In traditional work spaces, Peers are often viewed as people with weaknesses who have overcome their problems but could, at any moment, fall apart. I see it very differently. I see Peers as resourceful and resilient, with a wealth of skills and tools at our disposal, able to face adversity with the wisdom we have gained. We are powerful and knowledgeable. We also usually know what it means to have our power taken away, and so are much more mindful of power dynamics in our relationships. In short, we have the potential to be great leaders.