‘Is that all ok?’ my line manager asked, smiling.
‘Yeah of course! No problem at all!’ I replied, brightly. Too brightly.
My mask of a tight smile didn’t slip until I got back to my office, strategically hanging my coat over the in-cut window, calmly setting out a bottle of my favoured sparkling water, steadily locking the door, until finally, finally I could slump in a chair, letting the panic show, and allowing the tears to flow, my body heaving with frightened sobs.
A few weeks previously, I’d come back from maternity leave so dampened by the dullness, despair, and utter frustration of my post-natal depression, that work seemed like a welcome return to feeling successful.
Work was a place where I’d always felt in control – highly efficient, positive, and eminently capable of multi-tasking to the nth degree were aspects of my leadership I was extremely proud of.
I’d been warned, of course, that it might take me a little while to get back into the non-stop nature of school leadership, that my ‘baby brain’ might not be up to full speed to start with – but frankly, I believed that that was something that happened to other, less committed people. I would be fine.
I wasn’t fine.
Unwilling, and perhaps, to be kinder to myself, unable to accept that I wasn’t just slotting straight back in to that easy, breezy persona of old, I was flatly in denial. When well-meaning colleagues gently tried to reassure me that I could take things a little slower if needed, I felt they were being sexist, and perhaps even trying to knock me down for their own competitive gains. My defences went up – and my need to be perceived as successful a leader as I was before took over.
My husband watched, helplessly, as I cried, nay, bawled, nay ROARED every night in frustration and rage that I wasn’t who I used to be. Keeping a tight smile and a mask of confidence became key to my survival during the day.
It wasn’t until months after it all came crashing down that I realised something plainly obvious – I had needed help.
My belief at the time was honestly that asking for help was a weakness. I even admit that I looked down a little on others when they would open up to me, saying and doing all the right things, but secretly, shamefully, seeing them as somehow lesser for their needs.
With that difficult time behind me, and the benefit of fantastic coaching, I can now see clearly the three lessons I have learned from not asking for help:
1) It doesn’t make things easier for others
Surely hiding your frailities, your indecisions, and your shortcomings is better for those around you? Surely it eases their worry, and for our colleagues, means their already substantial workload isn’t added to? Wrong. Our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues want to help. Sharing with them what is wrong, and even turning to them for help with finding solutions actually manages their worry far more effectively than trying to pretend everything is fine when they can see that it really isn’t. If I had felt more comfortable in being open about my issues, starting with being honest about these with myself, I surely would have managed my return in a way that wouldn’t have impacted so disastrously on my confidence, my core values, and potentially my career.
2) It doesn’t lead to the situation improving
I can’t tell you exactly what I was thinking during those weeks of my return -honestly, they felt like a fug of confusion, panic and all out terror – but I think that I genuinely planned that pretending things were normal would give me the time I needed to get back to that ‘perfect’ leader from before.
Instead, inevitably, I fell deeper and deeper into the fog. Although I hope that my situation didn’t impact too negatively on those I line managed, had I continued in this way it certainly would have had lasting damage.
3) It doesn’t make you seem like a stronger leader
This realisation was the one that had the strongest ties to my quest to become an authentic leader.
I associated leadership with being strong – coming across as perfect at all times. It was a revelation to me when I first attended a WomenEd event and saw for myself examples of flawed, honest, incredible leaders. I realised that this was the embodiment of Steve Munby’s ‘imperfect leadership’ and Brene Brown’s ethos of ‘rumbling with vulnerability’ – and something finally clicked.
My inability to truly analyse how I was feeling, how this was impacting my work, and therefore not articulating what I needed to others, meant that I was weaker as a leader.
Asking for help is a display of strength
Although not currently in a leadership role, I recognise that I am a better leader in all aspects of my life now – not just compared to that tough time when I returned from maternity leave, but also in comparison to my rather blinkered and warped vision of ‘strong’ leadership from before.
I notice when I am struggling – and I curiously and forensically analyse it. Where has this feeling come from? What does it mean? How do I adapt to this moving forward?
No more do I hide when I’m struggling – I share my vulnerabilities with others – yes, even with you reading this now – and I articulate my needs confidently, without the pain of doubt or worry about how I am perceived.
If any of my story has resonated, please, take it from me – asking for help is a display of strength.