How to bring the joy back: Mission-driven vs. fear-driven leadership

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In my consulting, I repeatedly come back to the importance of becoming mission-driven leaders rather than fear-driven. During these scary times, leading requires clarity about where we are going and why. And yet when frightened, we are tempted to do all the wrong things. Here is what I mean.

The problem–losing our way

Once we have built something that we value, our temptation is to shift away from what brought success. Instead, we tend to move to a defensive posture, trying to hold on to what we have. Fear grows, and soon the joy of the accomplishment is a distant memory. The focus is on these sorts of questions:

  • What are the threats to what I have?
  • What are my competitors doing? How do I hold them off?
  • What will happen if we start, God forbid, shrinking?

Can you hear the fear and defensiveness?

Even the famous SWOT analysis has its defensive parts. This process identifies strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats but it is challenging to avoid the worry about the potential losses and how to guard against them.

Now in truth, there may be many real things to be concerned about, risks to address. And I am not suggesting that we ignore significant dangers or threats. My concern is how obsessive we become when we get scared. We hunker down into a bunker mentality. There is no joy and no excitement. Work turns into fearful anticipation of the next bad thing—sort of like PTSD about work. Burnout cannot be far behind.

Why these last couple of years have been incredibly frightening

With the disruptions of the pandemic, everyone has faced a new world. The pandemic changed everyone’s work. Additionally, there were no time-tested models to lean on. Everyone was making it up on the fly. 

And now, as the pandemic rolls on, work continues to shift repeatedly. And again, we have no apparent scripts to follow. 

For owners of a practice, the whiplash is exhausting and scary. And many are staring at burnout or at least become a little crispy.

Owners worry about:

  • How do I make decisions that lead to stability?
  • Should I make significant moves, or will my actions make things worse? 
  • Is there a way to capitalize on the changes that are occurring, or do I stay with the same business model?
  • How can I at least hold on to what we have?

The questions are relentless and, in some ways, unanswerable. No one has much visibility about what is coming or how to prepare for it. And, yet we do know some things.

My opinion about the future

I am no better than anyone else at predictions, but as an old guy who has been around a few decades, I think I know some things. 

  1. All methods for delivering psychotherapy will continue
  2. Old business models will work fine
  3. New business models will work fine, too
  4. Hybrid models are here to stay
  5. Licenses will become more portable though removing barriers will take years and probably decades
  6. The future will build on what we see already

In essence, I believe the mental health field will adapt but not as dramatically as one might think. Yes, the percentages of teletherapy vs. face-to-face psychotherapy will shift, but nothing is going away. And yes, some companies will emphasize one business model over another, but there is room for all. 

How do I know this? Because demand for mental health services is so high and will not diminish soon. The trend of increasing demand has been growing for decades and shows no sign of backing off now. If anything, demand is accelerating. Consequently, the market will reward all methodologies of delivering mental health services. And because all methods contribute to meeting the demand, all methodologies will stick around.

So how do we respond in a mission-driven way?

Here is where we need to get back to basics. Developing a mission-driven focus in our leadership is the answer to two problems:

  • A mission-driven focus is a way to crowd out the natural fearfulness we have of losing what we have
  • A mission-driven focus is a way to guide our efforts about where we go in the future

Reducing our fearfulness is good for us as leaders. And focusing on where we go in the future is good for our organization.

Rather than worrying about how to hold on to what we have, we should focus on a mission we can enjoy and commit to. Importantly, focusing on a mission makes each day’s challenges bearable and perhaps rewarding.

A suggested partial mission

One statistic mattered to me most as an owner. It was not profit. I focused on the number of sessions we delivered each year to our communities. Why? Because that told me whether we were accomplishing our mission or not. The more sessions we provided, the greater our impact on the communities we served. It was that simple. This one statistic most closely measured whether we fulfilled our mission. 

Now, of course, we could have boosted our session number by providing crappy clinical service, but if we did, the number of sessions eventually would diminish. So in some ways, an increase in the number of sessions was some indicator of excellence. And an increase also meant a number of other things–good marketing, expansion of our staff, etc. This stat was a good start.

I have written elsewhere about many aspects of our mission. See these posts:

The results of becoming mission-driven

One of the big payoffs of focusing on mission rather than fear is that joy can return. Fear is horribly debilitating and chokes out the sense of moving toward something meaningful. Everyone does their best when inspired to move toward something. A mission-driven attitude changes us from a clenched fist to an open hand. 

Furthermore, a mission-driven posture is a familiar space. Think back to the early days of forming your organization. Your mission is what drove you. You wanted to see your mission come to life in your organization. In these tough days, we want to tap into that memory. You can relearn how to do it because you have done it before.

In this post, Practice owners ask: Is this all worth it? I referenced some practice owner panelists reflecting on the rewards of ownership. Number one for each was the joy of turning a dream into reality. This excitement about working on a mission-driven effort seems to be a universal joy for all owners.

My point is that we can get back to the mission-driven orientation and rediscover some of the same joy of those early years. In short, we conquer our fears by driving toward a mission we believe in. Then sit back and watch our joy return.

Does the mission really matter?

I’m not sure that the details of the mission matter a whole lot for one’s mental health. As I mentioned earlier, I think many business models for delivering mental health services are viable. Therefore, in my view, it is more about finding the fit for you, the owner. You can build from there. 

In other words, I do not think you have to read the tea leaves perfectly to survive and even thrive. Your business will work well enough if you have a reasonable plan and the ability to execute it over the years. Especially in these days of super high demand, most models are good enough. 

Embrace your role as owner with joy

The owner is the owner, and there are times when the creation needs to change to fit better. And implied in this reality is the capacity to change those things that do not work so well. And yes, this will make waves. But with proper dialogues, many fellow travelers will come along, and those that do not will move on to situations that fit them better. This process is the natural way of things.

We want to build a business framework that appeals to the owner and is fair to all others who participate in the effort. Find what works for you, and then invite others to join. If your decisions are mission-driven, others will probably participate in the new mission. What emerges may fit better than ever. 

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