‘Mental health’ can mean a lot of things, depending on who you talk to. Many people confuse mental health – which is a positive state, like physical health – with mental ill-health. Mental ill-health is the anxiety that rears its head when an estranged son pictures a conversation with his mother. It’s the depression that settles on a college student facing a fractured world and a new set of life decisions. It’s the diagnosis of bipolar that reshapes a young adult’s self-perception.

But mental health, according to the World Health Organization, is “the state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

The trouble is, the so-called ‘normal’ stresses of life are getting pretty stressful. While emerging technologies present the leaders of today with increased opportunities for personal and workplace development, our increasing reliance on tools like smartphones can also lead to loneliness, anxiety and depression. Our fast-paced world, when exacerbated by political polarization, climate change, and mistrust in institutions, presents a challenge for all future generations.

This moment calls for a new type of leadership: one in which leaders show strength through embracing vulnerability, and exercise wisdom through creating spaces in which their teams can be psychologically safe, innovative and open about their mental health – if they so choose.

So how do leaders showcase that strength and cultivate that wisdom? We asked four individuals from the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders (YGL), whose answers point to three crucial elements of sound leadership in the face of today’s challenges.

Matthew Guilford, chief growth officer of Telenor Health and a member of the YGL class of 2019, has faced typical start-up challenges on top of fighting the stigma that can accompany conversations on mental health. Here, he comments on the importance of every leader to be kind to him or herself:

It's a bit ironic that leaders working on big challenges around human development - whether creating livelihoods or improving areas like education and health - can struggle with stress, low self-esteem, and other issues. It can be easy to feel like you are not doing justice to the cause and the opportunity to make an impact, that even 70 hours a week is not hard enough, that you're failing relative to the sheer magnitude of the challenge. In those moments, I think human-centered leadership is about trying to be emotionally generous to yourself, and even more so to your team. Sometimes the hardest parts of human development begin at home.

— Matthew Guilford

Another YGL from the class of 2019, Dr. Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, is an international psychologist trauma specialist and human rights policy developer. She comments on the importance of human-centered leaders to retain empathy in a world that can sometimes be profit-driven or cynical:

We cannot afford to think of our leadership as X at the expense of Y - for example, the quantitative bottom line at the expense of mutual compassion.

— Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

So what, according to our YGL, are the three critical elements for human-centred leaders?

1. Culture: Leaders should create cultures that destigmatize mental health issues and promote an understanding of individuals’ situations.

Billy Mawasha, a YGL from the class of 2017, is an established corporate leader across Africa.

My approach is really focused on self-management, creating awareness, peer assistance and care for others. It is important is to create an environment in which mental health issues are seen to be normal and not stigmatised. This can be achieved by sharing our own vulnerabilities as leaders, too. I openly share the vulnerabilities I face and how I cope with them with my colleagues. I think today’s leaders should prioritize the destigmatization of mental health and the provision of affordable support services. This can be achieved through open and honest engagements and by providing resources for mental health.

— Billy Mawasha

In environments where mental health is misunderstood or stigmatized, leaders can play a particularly important role in normalizing the discussion. We have tried to contribute to this in our own small way in Bangladesh, through our use of social media, SMS, and other health-related communications channels.

— Matthew Guilford

2. Authenticity: People follow leaders who are authentic.

Research demonstrates that we do not listen to what someone says but rather what they do and who they are. Each individual is gifted with an authenticity radar. When we meet ourselves first with all that that entails, we then can meet the world with our own unique abilities.

— Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

Neha Kirpal, a YGL from the class of 2015, is an Indian entrepreneur working to inspire a better system of mental health.

To be an effective human-centered leader we have to demonstrate care for our planet, our communities, our businesses and organizations, our colleagues, friends and family and, critically, ourselves. We have to demonstrate that we understand and put into practice empathetic ways of working and living. We need to demonstrate the emotional strength and maturity to acknowledge others’ expertise and knowledge and our own ability to listen and learn from it. And our social responsibility needs to be demonstrably part of who we are, not simply some presentational gimmick.

— Neha Kirpal

3. Self-reflection and self-care: Effective leaders know and take care of themselves.

Much like we have preventative health checkups, every leader should proactively seek out a form of self-inquiry via meditation, yoga, therapy, energy modalities or better yet, in combination. [Many of today’s issues] have resulted fundamentally from an inability to sit in silence by one's self with self-inquiry and observation.

— Anjhula Mya Singh Bais

Mental health belongs to all, and investing in it is as important as physical health. Yet many leaders overlook this, and in failing to give ou own mental health its due, we tend to undermine its importance to our people as well. Tuning in and feeding our own positive mental reserves can go a long way towards creating empathetic, human-centered organizations that respect every individuals' needs and circumstances.

— Neha Kirpal

Of course, these buckets are not mutually exclusive. In acknowledging the overlap between them, Neha puts it perfectly:

NK: Leaders need to be open and aware of the importance of taking care of one’s mental health, and should make it an organizational priority as well as something they publicly champion at corporate forums and in community settings. This goes a long way in the global movement towards true inclusion, equal human rights for all and the sustainable evolution of their organizations as well as their people.

— Neha Kirpal

From social entrepreneurship to psychology, from corporate finance to health technology, these individuals are pioneering what human-centered leadership means to them and their colleagues. Through recognizing the importance of mental health, authentically representing themselves, and reflecting on their own leadership styles, they are indeed realizing their potential, coping with normal stresses of life, working productively and fruitfully, and contributing to their organizations and communities.