The Connection Between Leadership and Psychological Well-Being
Despina Sfakinos is a Coaching Psychologist with a passion for helping people excel both personally and professionally. She has a PhD in Coaching Psychology and to date has coached over 1,000 people across a range of public and private sectors. She’s also created, developed and delivered introductory through to advanced coach training to a wide variety of audiences within the university and private sectors. Apart from practising in her home country Australia, Despina has also worked in Europe, London and Tokyo.
Tell us about MAD Psychology.
In 2011, I combined forces with fellow Psychologist Dr Michelle Roesler, and we formed MAD Psychology. Together we have a wealth of experience in the field. We’re quirky, always up for a challenge, and most importantly we take great pride in what we do. MAD Psychology offers a broad suite of psychologically-based services including leadership coaching, psychological and personality assessments, and resilience and mental health development. Importantly, we always use an evidence-based approach and provide a relevant, personalised “hands-on” service. Over the years, we have worked with a diverse range of individuals and organisations.
Can you please tell us a little bit about your journey into the field of psychology and coaching?
I have always been fascinated by humans and what makes people “tick”. Even as a child I would wonder why people were behaving in the ways that they did. After completing high school, I trained to become a graphic designer and started working as a designer within a large multinational organisation in Adelaide. Whilst I enjoyed the creative component of the role, I was intrigued (and perturbed) by some of the behaviours I witnessed and felt disenchanted about a number of work-related factors. I made the decision to return to University and study Psychology. I felt this would meet my innate drive to understand others. After completing my Honours Degree, I took a “one year break” and went to Japan to teach English. This actually became a six-year hiatus, in which I coached in a variety of settings, including working with Japanese executives to help them understand and work effectively with Western foreigners. I enjoyed the one-to-one coaching experience, and this prompted me to return to Australia and enrol in a PhD in Coaching Psychology at the University of Sydney. As part of my research, I developed and validated one of the world’s first and only measures of self-awareness.
I feel the combination of being both a psychologist and a coach provides me with great insight into the workings of human behaviour and enables me to adapt to the unique needs of each client. I also understand mental health, which is paramount for each and every one of us. The need and value in delving in deep, learning more about oneself, being able to be vulnerable in a safe setting, and to be open to doing the “inner work” tends to be an extremely rewarding process for the client (and myself).
Tell us more about this connection between leadership and psychological well-being.
I am a firm believer that leadership development also entails personal development, and the leadership literature increasingly supports this. A favourite quote of mine is “to transform our organisations, our communities, or our lives, we must first transform ourselves. Leadership development, then, becomes a process of self-reflection aimed at personal growth: a journey inward.” (Ambrose, 1995). The distinction between the professional and the personal is much more blurred than people often make it out to be. Leaders bring their whole selves to work, not just a part of themselves. Hence, the well-being of the whole person is essential in order to perform effectively at work.
Maintaining well-being requires focussing on all parts of life. Leaders who define themselves in terms of five arenas (family, work, community, personal and spiritual) have greater self-awareness. In addition, because their self-worth is based on their total self-concept they are better able to cope when they have difficulties in any arena of their life. Conversely, when an individual’s self-concept is dominated by one arena, they will experience higher levels of distress when difficulties occur in that or any other arena.
Of the five arenas, research has found that developing the personal arena has resulted in leaders being more engaged in their work, exhibiting a greater commitment to helping others and being better able to contribute to achieving the overall goals of the organisation. Further, leaders that are better able to engage in their work are better equipped to deal with work stress, and this further contributes to their overall wellbeing.
Maintaining well-being requires focussing on all parts of life. Leaders who define themselves in terms of five arenas (family, work, community, personal and spiritual) have greater self-awareness.
We are seeing a greater recognition by leaders that they need to have the capacity for authentic engagement with themselves and with others, in order to effectively navigate the ever-expanding complexity of the world. This capacity requires an ongoing process of self-development – better understanding of themselves and taking care of themselves. Leaders engaging in ongoing self-development also have the benefit of creating an environment in which ongoing learning and development is valued and encouraged throughout the organisation at all levels.
Can you please tell us a little bit about how you have found yourself working with teenagers and young adults, given that your core client group is CEOs and leaders?
I joined a not-for-profit organisation (the Helmsman Project) in 2012. This Project helps young people develop important life skills, so they can overcome setbacks and find the confidence to pursue their dreams. I coached young females, and thoroughly enjoyed the process. Given my working-class background and being a first-generation Australian, I could fully appreciate the needs being met by this programme. My interest in helping young people has continued to grow from this rich experience.
In addition, over the past decade, there has been a marked shift in the presenting needs of the clients that I coach. Whilst many of my clients historically tended to focus on issues within the work setting, the vast majority are now keen to discuss factors outside of the work arena. One emerging topic is relational issues with their teenagers/young adult children. With one in four young Australians having a mental health condition at any one time, it is not uncommon for clients to be navigating a challenging home setting. The emotional toll on the entire family unit is often significant and cannot be “left at the door” once the client enters the work setting. As the ethos of coaching psychology is about the “whole person”, I can assist them to navigate this pathway. This need will no doubt continue. Since 2020 there has been an increase in mental health issues across the globe. In effect, leaders are having to navigate their way through a world that has been in perpetual chaos and in which so many people are struggling.
We know that developing the self-esteem of young females (and males), has long-lasting benefits. Indeed, the World Health Organisation recently stipulated that enhancing the self-esteem of young people can reduce the likelihood of having mental health problems down the track, as the issues that emerge in adolescence tend to continue into adulthood.
What projects are you working on?
Dr Roesler and I are particularly concerned about the declining mental health of young females. Currently across the globe females have worse mental health than males, and those aged between 16-24 years are three times more likely to have a mental health condition. There is large heterogeneity in the size of the mental health gender gap across countries. Of interest, more gender-equal countries have larger gender gaps across all mental health outcomes, and higher GDP per capita is associated with worse average mental health. These statistics have been attributed to a possible incongruence between expectations and reality in high gender-equal countries.
We know that developing the self-esteem of young females (and males), has long-lasting benefits. Indeed, the World Health Organisation recently stipulated that enhancing the self-esteem of young people can reduce the likelihood of having mental health problems down the track, as the issues that emerge in adolescence tend to continue into adulthood. Mental health issues tend to emerge around the age of 14 years, and by the age of 24, 75% of mental health conditions have become apparent.
In 2012 we created an evidence-based program specifically aimed at enhancing the well-being and self-esteem of young people. The program (named Soleil) was then validated with over 200 females. The results have been outstanding. However, over the years we kept thinking “wouldn’t it be fantastic if all young women could have access to these skills and enhance their mental health and wellbeing”. In 2021 we began collaborating with our Swiss-based team to utilise technology to make our program accessible to more people, as we felt that this is the logical future of mental health care. We are about to launch our interactive coaching app for young females. This is very exciting for me. These young women are our future leaders. If we can have even a small part to play in developing psychologically healthy leaders, who are well equipped to engage with a complex and connected world, we can feel we have contributed to a promising future for all.