When Leaders Model Openness About Their Mental Health

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges, how they felt down, how they picked themselves up, and how they hope workplaces can change in the future.

Today, we have two leaders, who learned that being unusually transparent and vulnerable is a fantastic way to motivate people and drive positive change. We’ll hear about the world of tech startups and burnout from Buffer’s Joel Gascoigne a little later, but my first guest is Brooklyn Borough President, Eric Adams. Now, one of the most stressful places anyone can work is in politics and government. There’s managing different interest groups, constituents, budgets, the media. It’s a lot, even in a time that’s less about life and death like during the coronavirus pandemic. Right now, as I tape in the U.S., we are living in trauma, ripped more raw every day. The deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the unfolding acts of police brutality demand conversation and acknowledgement at work. But race is difficult for most of us to talk about. I’m working on a special show that will try to provide some guidance.

We taped this episode before the protests around policing and racial inequality in the U.S. erupted in full force, but it’s important to note that Eric Adams is a former police officer himself. He advocates now for the physical and mental health of his constituents, and that includes something you might not expect, meditation. He said, “I wish I had started meditating when I was a police officer because I went through my career with a misaligned center.”

Eric Adams is the current Brooklyn Borough President in New York. He served as an officer in the New York City Police Department for 22 years and then was a Democratic State Senator in the New York Senate. And in November 2013, Adams was elected Brooklyn Borough President, the first African American to hold the position. He was re-elected in November 2017. Mr. Adams joins me to speak about leadership, crisis, and meditation.

Well, first of all, just tell us what life is like in your district right now?

ERIC ADAMS: It is extremely intense. I think about the days of September 11th, when I was a lieutenant in the New York City Police Department, when two planes shattered what we thought was our reality. And we watched those buildings collapse in front of our eyes. I remember that, “Are we going to make it through this? Will we ever be the same?” Something happened, amazing, on September 12th. We got up. We opened our shops, we taught, we built. And the country watched us and responded to that. Although COVID-19 is not terrorism, it has created a level of terror that is going to cause us to dig deep as we lost so many loved ones in such a short period of time and as we’re also dealing with some of the physical and emotional trauma that’s associated with this. We’ll get through it one day at a time.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Let’s talk about the emotions. For you in particular, you’ve been public about anxiety, about dealing with anxiety and using your platform and visibility to lead others to take up meditation. Was it hard to get people to buy into it? Did anyone say, “Why Eric? Why are you focusing on this of all the things you could talk about?”

ERIC ADAMS: I’m amazed at how much we have to unlearn so we can start the process of learning. One thing is our bodies and our minds. I remember when I was diagnosed with Type II diabetes, my son came to me saying, “Dad, you spent so much time putting the right oil and gas in your BMW, why didn’t you do that to your body?” That was a wake-up call for me, that we need to start really understanding how our body operates. Mental health and physical health both need similar nurturing and caring. When I started to articulate the power of meditation and show people this was not just some hippie-type stuff, that this was proven science that has been around us for so many years, people started to really embrace the concept because they started seeing the results.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You know, it’s so funny you talk about your body because I think a lot of us, myself included, have a really complicated relationship with our body. How has meditation helped you have a different relationship with your body?

ERIC ADAMS: Coming out of policing, as a police officer in New York City for 22 years, I started when crime was high, and I saw some of the most inhumane things that a human being could do to another human being during that time. I didn’t realize until I retired and things slowed down a bit, that I experienced what I consider to be PTSD. I was reliving much of the anxieties that were attached to some of the crimes that I witnessed. Not until I reached out to the David Lynch Foundation and learned transcendental meditation was I able to really start the process of healing mentally and allowing myself to just silence the noise that was distracting me for so long. Just really to live present, taking that moment to actually hear my breathing, to actually feel the healing, mentally, that I was going through. It was extremely powerful and profound at the same time. I encourage people also to embrace that inner healing that we often ignore, particularly for men. My significant other would take the hot baths, she would sit down, she would take those moments, but we have the suck-it-up mentality when it comes to men that you’re supposed to really lean into the pain and the discomfort. It’s all part of manhood, which is really foolish. Your body doesn’t know any difference between a man or woman. It just wants to heal.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Oh man, that’s really beautiful. Take us back to this moment when you thought, “I’m going to do transcendental meditation.” Why that, and what spurred you to make that first call and go to that first meeting?

ERIC ADAMS: Well, it was a real dark place for me. Everything, from wondering, “Do I want to continue life in itself?” or, “Do I want to actually continue any form of career?” It was just a really dark moment. I know people do get there. It’s not unique to me. I don’t want to give the impression that what I was experiencing other people were not also experiencing, but it was a dark moment. Really, I was reaching out, saying I knew there had to be more. Although I am a Christian and believe in the religious philosophy of Christianity, I knew that it was not addressing the real need of healing. It almost had become a traditional Band-Aid that I would put on the cancerous sore of depression and the cancerous sore of going through PTSD. I knew I had to learn the science of how the brain operates. I was amazed when I explored how we relived trauma, although we don’t see it physically all the time. But for the most part, it was an erosive and corrosive experience that was happening to me every day internally as I relived that trauma, that fright and flight, every time I got revved up, over and over again.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How would things have been different if you were meditating when you were a police officer?

ERIC ADAMS: I went through a lot of stress in policing because not only was I fighting crime, I was fighting a lot of the “isms” in policing – racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, all of those things. I started an organization called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. It was in the heart of the tension between communities of color and the police department. Every day, I was going through this stress and trauma of really trying to make the department what I thought it should be during those moments and those times. That attitude, the overall stress of just fighting crime every day dealing with the criminal element and dealing with people going through everything from rape to robbery to homicide to domestic violence. All of those things combined, if I had a way of turning down the noise, if I had a way to find the space not only externally but internally, to really come to my center … Policing misaligned my center, and I never had a way of realigning my center. I went through my career with a misaligned center.


ERIC ADAMS: Meditation would have shown me how to realign it. I would have definitely become a better law enforcement officer, a better person, and a better human being in the process.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I have another question about anxiety because this show is called The Anxious Achiever. Everyone who is on this show has had an incredible career and has a history that, with different changes, looks like yours in that there is always a propulsion to achieve. You know this person is ambitious. For you, I think you graduated first in your class from the police academy. You have a Master’s degree. You started organizations when no one told you you had to start an organization. Clearly, you’re a very driven person. I’m curious if you think about, now that you look back, not that you’ve slowed down in any rate being the Brooklyn Borough President, but when you look back at your career, where did that drive to push forward come from? Do you think that it ever had a negative effect on your mental health or created anxiety in yourself?

ERIC ADAMS: Great question because I often say, in my resume, there needs to be a failure section. Sometimes, we just acknowledge the success in a person’s bio or resume.


ERIC ADAMS: But we don’t see how much it took out of you in the process. Being driven all the time, never really taking an opportunity to live in the moment, that’s what meditation really taught me. I no longer focus on the destination. I’m focusing on just the journey. I think the universe will let the destination take care of itself, but the beautiful journey that I’m on, if I spent more time when I was in the police department appreciating the journey, I believe I would have evolved out of it in a better way. Just constantly driven to get to the destination, to get to the destiny, the lack of time I spent with my son during that moment. I’m always on the go, always being driven to get to that top without realizing that “top” meant I was only looking for that next mountain to get to. I was caught up on just the destination and not appreciating the journey.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How does knowing that now … You work in politics now, which is not the most mentally healthy profession. I know from personal experience. How does your knowledge that it’s about the journey and not the destination or the achievement change how you manage your staff in the office?

ERIC ADAMS: It’s really part of … I have this thing that I tell all my staff, and they all know. Family first. Whatever we’re dealing with is going to be here long after we’re gone. We’re not doing anything that’s going to shift a planet out of its orbit. Taking care of our families, that is so important. That is my theme. I’ve given my staff an opportunity … We have a space where you can go and meditate or introduce yoga into your life, showing them that in each and all of us, I often say, we have a good wolf and a bad wolf. The goal is to starve the bad wolf and feed the good wolf. Just giving them an opportunity to explore themselves because they’re no good to the people we serve if they’re not good to themselves. There’s a reason, when you get on a plane, they say put the mask on yourself first during an emergency so that you can take care of whoever your travel companion might be. I encourage them to do the same – to take care of themselves and have the quality time they need to make sure that they are whole so they can make others whole.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How are you translating that into coronavirus time when things are so urgent? I can imagine your office is just inundated every day with life and death stories and requests.

ERIC ADAMS: Yes, and people are hurting.


ERIC ADAMS: They’re hurting. There used to be an old, soulful ballad that stated, “If you take a close look at my face, you’ll see my smile is out of place in the tracks of my tears.” Although people are robotically going through life, if you look closely and just communicate with people, you’ll see the tracks of their tears in pain. Three weeks ago, I lost five dear friends in one week. One of them was a police officer I trained as a rookie. She died from COVID-19, and the other was my mentor who talked me into politics. He died from COVID-19. I dreaded picking up the phone and listening to those sentences of, “Did you hear?” because I knew what was coming next. But the reality is that we are showing people how to cycle through their pains. We do a series of things on our Instagram, everything from showing people meditation, how to sleep right, how to cook healthy food that will strengthen their immune system, how to deal with this moment of learning, how to take this moment and turn their pain into purpose. That is our goal.

Our goal is more than just telling people, “Make sure you can get to a hospital.” We want to show self-care, and we’re doing that every day when we knock on doors and interact with people. We’re giving them tips around what they can do daily. I think that this is an opportunity for all of us to introduce ourselves to someone that we have not been around and have ignored for a long time, and that’s ourselves. We need to relearn who we are and what we need to function in a healthy environment. Healthy to ourselves and healthy to the people we love and who are around us.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You know, it’s so funny, I’ve been thinking because you quoted the song “The Tracks of my Tears.” I use music sometimes to change my mood and get me into a better place. What role does music play in your meditation life and your mindfulness life?

ERIC ADAMS: That was part of the exploration that I discovered. The power of sound and the power of music and the frequencies that are connected with the frequencies of our bodies. Music, to me, puts me in the right mindset and the right mood. I think it connects with my energy and allows me really to transform myself into an extremely meditative state.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: My last question for you, I ask you this as an introvert, is it strikes me that being in politics, your time is not always your own, even your body is not always your own or your space. You are a public servant. You exist to help others. How do you get the time you need to take care of your body and your mind? Do you have any advice out there for anyone who is feeling like their time isn’t their own?

ERIC ADAMS: I smiled when you said the term introvert. I’m extremely shy, and I am an introvert.


ERIC ADAMS: Everyone says that, but my family knows it. They said, “When it comes to politics, Eric would have been the last person we ever thought would go into politics.” But I’ve learned to listen to my body, both my physical being and the anatomy of my spirit. I no longer build my career or my life around that piece. It’s about making sure that I listen to the signals and when my body says, or my spirit says, it’s time to slow down, it’s time to do your self-care, I do not push back, and I do not ignore it. If it means canceling everything for the week, then I would cancel everything for the week. I must be at my optimum physically and mentally so I can give everything I can possibly give to the people I love and serve in the Borough of Brooklyn.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Wow. I never met an introvert or someone who admitted to being an introvert who was in elected office because it’s hard, right?

ERIC ADAMS: Yes, it is. It really is. Because I do, from my heart, I reach the hearts of the people I serve and that feeling of being around someone that gives from their heart, people want to be in their midst and in their presence. I feel sometimes the energy is drained from me. That’s why it’s important for me to constantly be aware of when I’m losing my energy so I can revitalize myself and be the type of person I want to be, to give people the attention they deserve because people are in so much pain. There’s so much pain not only for what is happening in their lives but what is happening on the national level, what is happening to our planet. People are internalizing the pain that we experience. We’ve lost the ability to communicate. We’re doing a series of dinners we call Breaking Bread, Building Bonds. We’re putting 10 people at a dinner table from different ethnic groups, different backgrounds, different ways of life so they can sit down and start doing something powerful. That’s just communicating. It’s more than just talking and waiting for someone to finish a sentence so you can say how wrong they are. It’s about being a deep listener and seeking to understand so one can be understood. We want to do that one dinner at a time, one interaction at a time, because it’s time for us to heal, not only as individuals but as a planet.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Do you think that understanding meditation and learning to focus on being present versus where you want to get to makes you a better listener? Has that helped you be a better public servant?

ERIC ADAMS: Without a doubt. In policing, I dreaded the things that happened. I was afraid of the things that could happen. I split my time between those two states of being. The question was, when was I in the present? Now I’m no longer fearing the future, and I’m no longer angry about the past. I am solely in the present. While I’m in the present, I am clearly conscious of the person who is in front of me and the issues they’re facing. I’m conscious of myself being in the present. We spend too much time in the past and too much time worrying about the future. It’s time to live in the present, and meditation taught me that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Why is this so hard? Why am I even talking to you? I’m glad I’m talking to you, but why is it so special that you are the rare elected official? You are the only elected official who has ever reached out and said, “I want to talk about mental health. We should be talking about mental health. Mental health is as important as physical health.” Why are we so blind as a society, and why is it so hard for our leaders to talk about emotions?

ERIC ADAMS: I think we’ve ignored it for so long. Really going back to unlearning what we learned so we can learn. I’m amazed at how when I spoke to some of the most knowledgeable health professionals when I went through my bout with diabetes, how many good doctors who wanted to see their patients heal had no clue on the concept of reversing diabetes. Our inability to really understand how the body operates, the power of nutrition, what it does to our brain, how food even impacts depression. Science is showing us more and more. We have to really go back and start learning in a very true sense. We allowed Western civilization and the European mindset to really paganize those religions and those ways of life that really connected us to this universal center that we’re all a part of. I believe people are now stating that they want to heal and that they’re going to find their own roadmap to healing and not just go by what they were taught.

It’s really a tragedy of Shakespearian proportion how we denied people the accessibility of knowing true wellness and how to truly heal. I think we’re on the road of seeing a cosmic and universal shift. The conversation is going to be forced out of desperation. I was desperate when I lost my sight and told that I was going blind. I was desperate when I was told I was going to lose some fingers and toes. That desperation forced me to find another pathway of not just doing things that are traditionally done. I think that desperation is also in the area of mental health and mental illnesses. People want to heal. That’s a powerful desire when you’re ready to heal.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Well, thank you so much, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. I wish you good health.

ERIC ADAMS: Thank you.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I first came across Joel Gascoigne from his tweets announcing his company would move to a four-day workweek, publishing the company’s revenue in minute detail, encouraging staff to take time off for mental health care. Who was this guy? I had to know. Then I learned that Joel had his own mental health story. He’s a sworn enemy of burnout, and he actively manages to reduce burnout for his staff and himself. Joel Gascoigne is the CEO of the social media software company Buffer. After starting a tech company called Buffer, looking to gain more freedom and start a company he was proud of, he hit a series of roadblocks along the road to growth, suffered a major case of burnout, depression maybe, and ended up taking a leave of absence. He came back to work as a different kind of leader, one that wanted to create a more mentally safe place for everyone who worked there. I started by asking Joel how he came to realize he needed a bit of a sabbatical.

JOEL GASCOIGNE: It really started at the end of 2015. It began with a year of change and stress and loss. Throughout 2015 and most of 2016, my co-founder and I were growing apart on our vision for Buffer’s future and where we saw the company going. We had several in-person meetings where we tried to find common ground. It’s something that had happened previously. We’d always found a way through. Then we also had some financial challenges, which resulted in needing to do a round of layoffs. We had to say goodbye to ten really incredible people, but our financials had just been off-track.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You wrote a really transparent and honest … you shared this, publicly.

JOEL GASCOIGNE: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. Our core values, that I always had as principles myself, are transparency and integrity. We really … I think that can be easier to do when times are good, but we always have tried to stay true to that in the tough times as well. I think one of the other things worth noting was that I realized that adrenaline was carrying me through a lot of that year. Especially with the layoffs, I remember feeling immediately that I just had to get the company through this. I have to be strong for the team. In a lot of ways, I didn’t feel the level of stress that I think my body was actually taking on because the adrenaline was there, carrying me through. I felt good. I was exercising as well, I was doing a lot of things that I felt were helping me at that time. When I describe it sometimes, people can feel, “Oh, that must have been really hard.” It was hard, but I think I don’t remember it being a really tough, challenging thing.

That actually came a little bit later. Just to continue, my co-founder and also our CTO left the company in early 2017. Again, I was kind of thrown into this “help the company get through this and thrive as much as possible through it.” This adrenaline came back and carried me through again. I just also realized that looking back in hindsight, I was so stressed during that time that it was affecting me as well. It affected my relationship, actually my now wife. It all worked out great in the end.


JOEL GASCOIGNE: But we had some really tough times there.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: What was the worst that it had ever got? What eventually led you to say, “I need to walk away from this for a little while”?

JOEL GASCOIGNE: It was about two months after my co-founder left. Things started to stabilize, and I was like, “Oh, we got through this.” I remember distinctly that this was a moment I felt like, “This should be over now, and I should be starting to feel better.” That’s exactly when the burnout really hit me. I just felt kind of empty. I lost my motivation. I didn’t really care as much. It was a weird thing because I knew I cared really deeply about the company, but I didn’t have anything left in a lot of ways. I struggled to get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. Even just talking about it is kind of bringing it back a little bit. In those days, anything could set me off, make me well up.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was there a specific instance, or you sort of one day realized it? Did someone confront you?

JOEL GASCOIGNE: I was talking to a few people, with my family and especially my siblings, just trying to get help. I knew I was struggling. I was also looking into starting to meet with a therapist, but I didn’t have that set up at that point. It was really hard. I think that’s one thing I’ve learned is you should really have these things set up in advance of a situation like that, if possible. I think it was really just that I was grinding to a halt, and then one day, I felt like I had only a tiny bit left of energy that I could put into something. I started to open up more to the leadership team about all the different things and just how I was feeling. They were very kind and supportive and really encouraged me to take some time. I decided to write a memo to the team. I used my last bit of energy to get that memo out.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: To me, it sounds like you were depressed. All the symptoms you were describing to me sound like depression. The total flatness, inability to find energy.


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Can I ask you a question that I’m hearing a lot, especially in these very scary times where even people who … People in charge who may not typically feel scared or are not in touch with their feelings are scared, and their staff is scared.


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Did you ever say to your staff, “I’m leaving because I’m not functional right now. You’ll be okay”? I think part of the pressure of leadership when you have a mental health issue is you can’t show it because your staff relies on you. “If I’m seen as weak…” which I think is crap, but that’s a whole other conversation “…what will happen to them?” What’s your advice? Because leaving and saying, “Sorry, I have to leave. I’m in a really bad place” is vulnerable. We don’t necessarily like leaders to show us how vulnerable they are. What’s your advice for that as a leader?

JOEL GASCOIGNE: I did share that I was burned out and struggling and needed to take time off. I knew that deep down. It was a few layers buried within me at that point because I was struggling, but I still had the sense I knew that I really cared about this company because I had just done two really tough things with the company. I knew that I really cared about the company, and I was excited about the future prospects of the company. But it was, as I said, it was hidden, or it wasn’t something I could feel in that moment. But I did try to share that to the team in that same message that I just need to take some time off. I didn’t put a time frame on it, which was a little scary to do, but I knew that I needed to share it in that way because I didn’t know how long it would take me. I didn’t want to take two weeks off and come back and not be fully resolved from it. I wanted to be in a really good place again.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: How long did you end up taking?

JOEL GASCOIGNE: I think it was about four or five weeks. Something around that.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Was there anyone in your life, tangential to the business, your accountant, or your financial advisor, an uncle, who said, “You can’t do this. You’re the boss.”

JOEL GASCOIGNE: No, I think I’m lucky that I had a lot of support at that time. No one questioned it in that way, which I think was very lucky, but I think that’s probably part of the culture and the team we put together.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: I also think it’s important for you to say that for listeners because I think we feel that people will be more judgmental than they are. We’re all human, and we understand.

JOEL GASCOIGNE: That is definitely true. I had a lot of voices in my head at that time which were saying some of those things. I agree, once I pushed through and shared it. I think that’s the thing with being vulnerable and sharing, especially as a leader, is that oftentimes you are imagining things that don’t end up being true. Also, something I distinctly remember is the amount of support I got from the wider team. I mentioned I had support from the leadership team that I was working with very closely to go ahead with taking that time off. But when I shared the memo with the whole team, it was a different level of support. It was support for me, but also it was kind of gratitude that I was doing it because I think it kind of normalized it in a way. I think that changed us as a company ever since then because it made it totally okay for people to take time off. We encourage people to take a day off for their mental health just as much as for traditional health challenges.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: You have benefits at the company, also, I read. That’s how I found you. I will say this again, and I’ve said this many times on the show. It is so hard for me to find leaders, who especially are in their jobs now, that are open about having struggles with mental health. I ended up randomly Googling things, and I found a blog post. I found several blog posts from your team, from you. Talk about how you coming back transformed further enhanced a culture of acceptance. Also technically, what you have in place … You said you have non-judgmental days-off opportunities. You have telehealth. What did you put in place at the company to make it a more mentally healthy environment?

JOEL GASCOIGNE: Absolutely. I think it did spark … this was very much within the culture already, but me taking that time off, coming back, really helped us take things to a new level after that point. We have, as mentioned, those mental health days off as much as any other types of sick leave or time off. I think one of the things generally as well is just, this is not necessarily a specific benefit we’re putting in place, but I think it’s just as important, having those open conversations, creating Slack channels or different spaces to have conversations about mental health, sharing the ways we’re each trying to take care of ourselves. That’s something that happens regularly, and I also try to … I think any time I feel a challenge that I feel I’ve done something to work through a low point or something like that, I feel that’s an opportunity to share it as well. Just breaking that stigma of being a weakness or seen in that way is something that we’ve focused a lot on. I think it’s almost like once you open the floodgates that everyone has things that have been building up for them, and now, I think we have a really healthy culture where it gets shared a lot more frequently, and it doesn’t build up.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: This is the point, Joel. It’s like, yes. Everyone has stuff.


MORRA AARONS-MELE: Everyone has stuff. Leaders have stuff. Employees have stuff. In every area of your company, people have stuff. We’re human.


MORRA AARONS-MELE: If you can have your stuff and be excellent, it’s no big deal.

JOEL GASCOIGNE: It’s no big deal, and it’s also crucial that you work on that stuff yourself, especially as a leader more so than anyone else in the company, especially as the CEO. You’re kind of carrying this baggage around, and if you don’t work on it and don’t share that you’re working on it, it’s going to impact the way that you lead and the culture you end up with because it’s all going to just get dispersed within that, and that’s not healthy at all.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: Thank you so much Joel.

JOEL GASCOIGNE: Thanks so much, Morra. It’s been a really amazing conversation.

MORRA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for this week’s show. If you like what you’ve heard, tell a friend or rate us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have a question or a topic that you’d like to see featured on the show, you can email AnxiousAchiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam, that’s M-O-R-R-A A-M. Many thanks to Mary Dooe, my amazing producer, and the team at Harvard Business Review. Of course, to our advertisers who keep us going and my guests. If you like The Anxious Achiever music, it’s by Brian Campbell at Signal Sounds NYC. From HBR presents, this is The Anxious Achiever, and I’m Morra Aarons-Mele.

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