I. Stephanie Boyce: Mind over matter

We read daily of inflationary court backlogs, crumbling court infrastructure, legal aid deserts, lack of court staff. The number of those seeking legal advice has increased, but this has not been matched by the resources needed to deliver justice promptly for those turning to the justice system. In addition, the aftermath of the recent global pandemic still lingers along with a looming cost of living crisis. Times are tough with high inflation and price rises which is fuelling anxiety amongst many.

Businesses are feeling the strain and being a leader at anytime is a very demanding job which can often leave you feeling isolated, vulnerable and no doubt depressed.

I was struck recently by the candour of Hamza Yusaf, First Minister of Scotland when he spoke about his struggle with his mental health in his role and how he sought out counselling in 2016. Moreover, I have been recently concerned with the exodus of leaders, in particular, women leaders and the reason given for their exit and I cannot help but wonder if leadership positions are harmful to one’s mental health.

Far too often as a society we elevate individuals to positions of power and influence and then from a dizzy height we seem to take pleasure in tearing them down to anything but a soft landing, disempowering, stripping away at what it means to be a leader and more and more leaders are calling time out, stepping away from their roles citing burn out, from Jacinda Ardern, Prime minister of New Zealand who resigned in January 2023 stating:

“I have given my absolute all to being Prime Minister but it has also taken a lot out of me. You cannot and should not do the job unless you have a full tank…Having reflected over the summer I no longer have that bit extra in the tank to do the job justice. It’s that simple.”

To Nicola Sturgeon, former First Minister of Scotland:

“But in truth, [giving everything of yourself to the job], can only be done by anyone for so long…The First Minister is never off duty, particularly in this day and age. There is virtually no privacy…Leading this country through the Covid pandemic is by far the toughest thing I’ve done…But the weight of responsibility was immense, and it’s only very recently, that I’ve started to comprehend, let alone process, the physical and mental impact of it on me.”

To Simone Biles, American Gymnast who in the summer Olympics of 2020 posted that she was “[feeling] the weight of the world on [her] shoulders” – She withdrew from the rest of the competition citing mental health issues. In 2021 she again withdrew from competing, citing mental health concerns.

It is clear that the demands of being a leader can be at times not so good for your health and meaning you calling time out before you burn out or get exited out as Dame Alison Rose did following a “serious error of judgement” in discussing a Coutts’ customer’s banking arrangements with a journalist, my mind still boggles how a leader in her position could have allowed herself to become so vulnerable, so exposed.

As the longest serving president of the Law Society of England and Wales, serving 19 months instead of the usual 12 months by the end of my tenure I was exhausted with the weight of office and all that it brought with it, it was a challenging and turbulent time. It’s fair to say my time in office was eventful to put it mildly. I had to lead the profession through a number of once-in-a-lifetime crises. For so much of my tenure, the focus was on keeping the ship steady and stable through choppy waters. The steady hand on the tiller.

We saw the UK leave the European Union, we have lived through a pandemic, the biggest single challenging experience for many of us, the war in Ukraine, the withdrawal in Afghanistan, the death of Her Majesty the Queen, a cost of living crisis and the biggest shake up to the way solicitors train and qualify in 30 years to name a few events and of course not to mention the number of ministerial resignations or Law Society CEO’s to add to this list of events. It was a volatile and eventful period of office and indeed in our history as a nation. At times I still feel exhausted even though its been almost a year since I left office. So why are so many leaders feeling burnt out, tank empty with nothing more left to give, I think Nicola Sturgeon summed it up well when she spoke of the demands of the role in our 24/7 unforgiving, relentless dance with social media.

There is so much wastage amongst leaders and now more than ever there is an economic case for creating environments for leaders to flourish physically and mentally. Authentic leaders have a unique value that they bring and will be critical to unlocking future opportunities but when everything is said and done leaders are human beings not robots, not automated decision makers and are not infallible.

The best advice I can give is to be kind to yourself, know your limits, be self aware, be focused, strategic and listen and always be willing to draw upon your indefatigable spirit, your resilience, strength, perseverance and courage, all of these have been my tireless companion through out my journey to the top.

I. Stephanie Boyce was president of the Law Society of England and Wales in 2021/22. In March 2021 she became the 177th, the sixth female, the first black and first person of colour to become president.

I.Stephanie Boyce

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