Mental health and wellness at the top: A conversation about emotional well-being, peak performance, and leadership impact with Dr. Ardeshir Mehran

Mental health and wellness at the top: A conversation about emotional well-being, peak performance, and leadership impact with Dr. Ardeshir Mehran

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran, a psychologist, behavioral researcher, business leader, leadership coach, and founder of the Human Work Studio, discusses mental health and well-being at the leadership level.
May 14, 2024
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In this next episode of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky speaks to Dr. Ardeshir Mehran, a psychologist, behavioral researcher, business leader, leadership coach, and founder of the Human Work Studio, about mental health and well-being at the leadership level. In the conversation, Dr. Mehran explores some of the science around the links between emotional well-being and peak performance as well as the neuroscience for feeling better, living better, and leading better.

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Welcome to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: Hi, I'm Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Toronto office, and a leader in the firm's CEO & Board Practice where I work with boards and CEOs to optimize their performance. As an organizational psychologist, I have spent my career studying and working with exceptional leaders, and I'm always keen to learn ways to unlock their potential and enhance their impact.

In today's podcast, I'm speaking with Dr. Ardeshir Mehran, a psychologist, behavioral researcher, business leader, leadership coach, and founder of the Human Work Studio. Dr. Mehran is a pioneer in the science of fulfillment and is a coach to executives for better and rapid well-being outcomes. He's also the author of the bestselling book You Are Not Depressed. You Are Un-Finished. and has developed what's known as the Bill of Emotional Rights, a set of lifelong principles for perpetual fulfillment and growth. 

I'm thrilled to be joined by Dr. Mehran today because I feel very strongly about the importance of today's topic, which is the mental health and well-being of leaders. CEOs and other top leaders are high achievers, role models of talent and strength, but there's also this alternate reality seldom acknowledged. Data show that the rate of depression, anxiety, bipolar, substance abuse, and suicide among executives, founders, and entrepreneurs is double the general population, and many high achievers struggle privately.

In this conversation, we're hoping to explore some of the emerging science around the links between emotional well-being and peak performance, and the neuroscience for feeling better, living better, and leading better. Dr. Mehran, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: Thank you so much, Laryssa. I’m looking forward to our conversation. Thank you. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: I'm gonna start with the following to get us teed up, and it's reflective of a very powerful passage that I read in your book and in it you wrote, “Many high achievers are like a thoroughbred horse scalloping on three legs. They're unaware, they're not reaching their 100% potential.” Can you explain that to us, please? 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: Yes. So in 2019, there was an article in Harvard Business Review that revealed that up to 50% of CEOs report being lonely. This is not lonely at the top; this is lonely as a lifestyle. 2022, Deloitte also found that 30% of CEOs are reported to be lonely. So we need to ask the question: What is going on? 

What is going on is a lot of CEOs are running on empty. What does that mean? Running on empty means they have mastered the science of achievement—about grit, about drive, about resiliency, control, and achievement. There's a part missing that is about fulfillment. You can be extraordinarily successful and deep down, feeling isolated, lonely, depressed, and dealing with substance abuse. Science is just recently catching up with that.

This is my work. And I stumbled upon this working with a lot of CEOs that, when they are behind closed door, they say, “I wanna talk with you.” They didn't wanna see a therapist. They said, “I'm just fine, but I'm struggling.” There's a better way to take care of yourself. But nobody has told us that—in our science, in our growth, that you can be both a high achiever and also [have] high fulfillment. If you know the science of fulfillment, you can also master and bring that to your life, to your team, to your organization. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: And as you were speaking, it made me think that others, if nothing else, can feel like what they're going through is normal and that there is a way forward. 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: Yes. Yeah, exactly. It's important to emphasize, Laryssa, that this conversation is not about making anybody feel bad, feel awkward. This is about really invitation to take a look at, to observe and say, “Hey, what is going on with me, around me? And do I like it?” Lead with observation versus feeling bad or feel that, ah, I need to do something. No, no, no. Don't do anything. Just observe and see if data that we share makes sense to you. That's the best way to start. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: So building on that, Ardeshir, and thinking about the impact that these leaders have running organizations and given the well-known links between a thriving organizational culture and high performance, and the fact that cultures follow leaders, how does a leader's personal well-being positively contribute to a thriving organizational culture?

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: When a leader is not feeling well—and feeling well among leader, usually there's a hierarchy of a private emotional struggle. There's a combination of depression and anxiety. What is anxiety? Anxiety is the element of control, predictability, stability.

Leaders, they love predictability, stability, and control. Part of that, that's how they're wired. What is depression? Depression is a sense of unfulfilled need. When a leader struggle with anxiety and depression, the following happens. They literally develop a tunnel of vision because their nervous system is focused [on] “I wanna get out of this situation. I don't like it.” So they get triggered faster. And when there's information coming in, especially in the business world, contradicting information, complex information, they lose depth vision.

They see few things. They look for quick actions and people around them says, “We are not done yet. That strategy, that plan doesn't make sense.” And the leader says, “No, no, no, that's the way to go. March ahead.” So they lose the element of pivot and prioritization; they become hardheaded. In some way, we reward those individuals—they get to the top, but they leave dead bodies and torched forests behind.

So when leaders are not feeling well, they become hard to handle, they become arrogant, and they drive faster. There's nothing wrong with them. It’s just they are trying to contain and deal with their own emotional dynamics tha somehow haven't been resolved, and nobody told them that. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: I want to pursue that a little bit further, Ardeshir, and specifically I'm thinking about our most recent survey of CEOs and board members at companies around the world, which highlights that these leaders lack of confidence in their organization's ability to navigate challenges and crises.

So in light of what you just said, can you talk also a little bit about the links between personal health and well-being and the leader's ability to lead during times of uncertainty or even crisis now? 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: That's right. So every organization, there's a quality of their success is about capacity to act. That instead of information and direction coming from the above all the time, strong cultures, adaptive cultures, they are very high on capacity to act. And capacity to act means that you're not always right, but you are very high on prioritization and pivot. You can learn; you can pivot and prioritize again. So when leaders indicate they are doubtful about if the organization can thrive, what they're really saying is that “Can my organization— Do they have capacity to act? Can they take the direction, value creation, direction, and figure it out? Versus I get involved.” 

So in some way, I see leaders as part of the same equation. Is the organization dependent on the leader? Do they looking for direction, clean directions, more communication? Versus can people around them, below them, figure things out with the right general direction? So I see part of this, the challenge is the leader themselves.

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: And it makes me think of the term “the tone at the top.” And this whole conversation's really bringing it to light for me, the consequences if a leader is not fully fulfilled or functioning at his or her best—the implications. 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: That's right. That's right. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: And so as we think about the pandemic that we all went through and now the openness to working from home, or at least an appreciation of mental health, coupled with physical health, and having different types of work arrangements to optimize those. I'm curious, from your perspective, has hybrid and remote work affected leaders' well-being in a positive or negative way?

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: What the pandemic did across life patterns, including the world of business, was create a sense of: The way we've been living our lives, we've been working, do they make sense?

For example, I live in the Bay Area. I see corporate headquarters five miles from my house. They're still building buildings based upon 10-year-old plans that is— These offices are sitting empty. 

So even Bay Area, there's a tension across the companies. Some companies say, “You must come to the office every day.” Some companies say, “You can work remotely.” Some companies say, “part-time.” What really the issue is what makes sense about getting work done—thinking about commute, about lifestyle—but it's about value creation.

So that's the topic and the opportunity for the leader, but given our business, our customer value creation, our strategy, what makes sense, and allowing flexibility and pivoting opportunity. 

What would be helpful with teams, with leaders allowing capacity to change and focus on value creation in real time? So teams, they wanna come together to connect. To learn from each other at the rate that makes sense. And leaders, they need to get comfortable with that. This is hard for many leaders who love their teams around them. They feel, “My team is here. I need to see them.” They're struggling with that. This is an opportunity for reset, looking about what makes sense in the context of value creation and rapid value creation. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: Thank you. The perpetual challenge I think of when I deal with and work with my clients is that we are all in this constant state of flux, uncertainty, chaos sometimes, and many of us have come to embrace the term “get comfortable being uncomfortable,” or, you know, “the only constant is change” and all that comes with that. 

So knowing that that will be consistent going forward and knowing the importance of the mental health to performance and resilience, I'm curious, Ardeshir, if people were to take away three pragmatic tips from you today so they can optimize their resilience and mental health and physical health for their performance? 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: Beautiful question. Let's go to the data. CEOs should be concerned with such a high rate of loneliness. The way about loneliness is not that you need a room full of people. It's about are you being seen? Are you being heard? Leaders—I work with them—they get awkward when they want to get vulnerable, and they feel telling somebody, “You know what? I'm struggling. I don't have the answer. I have marital problem. You know, my kids, you know, I dunno what to do with my son.” It is okay.

Talking about human struggle connects all of us. So invitation to you as a leader is that: Who do you have in your life around you that can listen to you? It's not about advice. You don't need advice. You already know the answer. You want somebody to give you a space to be human, to talk about what you're going through, good, bad, and the ugly to find your way, to create a space for you.

Number two. We don't talk about it. Many CEOs I work with. When I feel comfortable, I ask them to open their purse or briefcases or backpack. There's a lot of medications in it. This is not being physically fit. It's about the medications you take for you stay healthy. There are various combinations of painkiller, high blood pressure, and so on.

Pay attention to your physical health. It's not via our mind and body and ailment that when we don't feel well or we feel well, it's all one thing. It’s that: What are you doing to sustain, to take care of yourself—that if you are taking a lot of medication to go on, take a step back and to see how do I stay healthy?

You are paying a price like that three-legged horse. At a certain point, you will pay a price, stand back, and say what is a better way. The third one is almost counterintuitive. I challenge leaders that—are you really being heard? This is not about your gifted brain, your strategy, your organization.

Are there things in your heart, in your soul that you want somebody to hear it? So what I know for our many leaders, they have private journals. They're writing books that say, someday when I retire I will publish it. You have a story to tell. Who is hearing that? What are the wisdom you have? What are the experiences of your life, your gifted drive or traumatic life? What are you doing with your stories? 

When we tell our stories, we become whole. We become authentic, we become alive again. So going back, find the right connection that gives you a space to be you. Tell your story; you need to be heard. For us to go to the next level of wellness, we need to tell our stories.

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: Ardeshir, always a pleasure to spend time with you. I appreciate your wisdom and sharing your story today with our audience, and I'm sure they're all gonna benefit from you.

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: Great. 

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky: Thank you very much for joining me today. 

Dr. Ardeshir Mehran: Thank you so much. Thank you so much, Laryssa.

Thanks for listening to The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Dr. Laryssa Topolnytsky ( a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Toronto and Montreal offices and a leader in the firm’s CEO & Board Effectiveness Practice.

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