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Successful leaders in the legal industry require ‘inclusion intelligence’

Successful leaders in the legal industry require ‘inclusion intelligence’

Jeremy Hyman

Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, JFK, Jr., Winston Churchill and John Curtin not unlike many of history’s great leaders, all were challenged with mental health issues, writes Baker McKenzie's Jeremy Hyman.

Lincoln’s remarks on life’s challenges were helpful to many, none more so than this – “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all and it often comes with bitter agony. Perfect relief is not possible except with time. You cannot now believe that you will ever feel better. But this is not true. You are sure to be happy again. Knowing this, truly believing it will make you less miserable now. I have had enough experience to make this statement.”

Not dissimilar to the trials and tribulations of well-known historical leaders was the time in 2010 when I attended the premiere of the [email protected] video which was the result of a collaboration between the major legal firms and The College of Law to take a leadership role in raising awareness and understanding of the nature and impact of stress, depression and anxiety across the legal profession.

The personal accounts of lawyers at all levels laid bare on film showed the real struggle of people battling mental health issues in our profession.

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Indeed, hearing people’s personal stories has opened up the deepest recesses of my humanity and continues to teach and remind me of the inclusive traits of compassion and empathy. It has shaped my understanding of relationships in the workplace, a place which should be inclusive – where people talk to each other, listen to each other and understand the world around us.

I recall witnessing former leader of the opposition in NSW (2002 to 2005) – now prominent business leader – John Brogden’s 2013 Tristan Jepson Memorial Lecture where he talked about leading change towards improved psychological health and wellbeing in the legal profession. It was through his own powerful journey of lived experience that he connected with the audience and was able to authentically express the concept of including humanity in all aspects of our lives and the importance of allowing people to be themselves and not have to hide those parts they fear aren’t normal, weird or perceived undesirable in a competitive environment.

For me, this reverberated loudly: a raison d’être residing in an inclusive Australian society, taught to me through my own lived experience and expressed through other people's stories.

Granted, those leaders who lived with mental health issues might have a head start on those who have been fortunate not to have suffered but all share equal responsibility to take positive steps to address these issues.

I submit that successful leaders require what I refer to as “inclusion intelligence” – acquiring it will necessarily, make people feel uncomfortable.

For a leader to ask someone about how they are faring both in and out of work, requires a deep resolve to listen to the answer and fully absorb the response they receive. Whether it be a mental health issue, bereavement or struggle to express one’s sexuality in the workplace: the answer may be uncomfortable. A leader needs to be uncomfortable on a regular basis to know that he or she is building a diverse and inclusive culture.

Diversity is intrinsically linked to all areas of life and that is what make us as humans different and conversely the same. One person’s story can have similar aspects of another person’s story, which becomes powerful when shared to draw us closer together in our workplaces.

One doesn’t have to sink into the depths of depression or battle debilitating anxiety to share vulnerable parts of themselves from which others draw strength. To be human will inherently mean we all have experienced life's challenges and that “opening up” can make a huge difference when demonstrated from the top.

The legal profession is making strides to address wellbeing in the workplace and I believe there is a greater focus than ever before.

Law firms, representative bodies, charitable foundations, law schools, corporates and mental health groups have done a lot to provide access to new resources and promote greater understanding of the issues in our profession.

Some will cynically ask, why has the dial not moved and the statistics tell a better story? To me this fails to understand how little we know about these afflictions and how long this journey will take us to better health. Early intervention combined with supports for those suffering now are but one part of the answer. We also need to bring about change in human behaviour and how we act towards one another – cultural change – which may take generations to embed.

What we need is for our leaders to keep us on track and ensure we have inclusive workplaces, knowing what that means and how they will lead by example.

The issue of mental health in the workplace is one that I feel strongly about, knowing that anyone can add considerable value to an organisation irrespective of their own adversity, providing perspectives, experience and often heightened senses that come from those experiencing difficulties that prove an asset in any workplace.

Right now, difficult conversations have and continue to be had in legal workplaces by enlightened leadership who possess inclusion intelligence, which I hope encourages more leaders to understand how important it is to feel uncomfortable more often and have a conversation that could make a difference.

I wish for leaders in our society to emerge contemporaneously, as a leader and a human being. I believe all leaders within a workplace must have “inclusive intelligence” in order to
build a successful, diverse workplace.

As former President, Barak Obama stated in his 2015 State of the Union address: “I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we’re a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen – man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino, Asian, immigrant, Native American, gay, straight, Americans with mental illness or physical disability. Everybody matters”.

I believe leaders in the legal industry do understand the power of diversity and increasingly we are seeing them lean in to address uncomfortable situations in the understanding that inclusion unlocks the power of diversity and derives from it a better outcome for their business, their people and society.

Jeremy Hyman is the communications leader for Baker McKenzie in Australia and board member for Mr Perfect, a grassroots, “pre-crisis”, for men and their families mental health charity that encourages conversations and connections in a supportive and inclusive environment.

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