In many ways, 2023 marked a professional high point for me. I was named the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Southeast, given the Phil Freelon Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Award, and, in November, we sold The Diversity Movement to Workplace Options. While all the accolades and awards were gratifying, 2023 was also one of the most difficult and challenging times of my life.

Selling a business that you have founded and grown is always highly emotional. It was a great outcome coming at exactly the right time, yet the financial due diligence was painstakingly uncomfortable and stressful. And, while we were working to complete the sale, my dad was going through significant health issues. He had three surgeries over a three-month span, and I wasn’t sure if he would recover.

My business life was great, yet in my personal life, the hits kept coming, and I was struggling to stay on my feet. It was simply my “Best Year, Worst Year.”

The story behind the smile

I’ve spoken to many executive leaders who can relate to this scenario, because when you have high-level responsibilities, you don’t have the luxury of falling apart. Roughly half of senior executives report significant stress, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review, with 20% experiencing high or extreme levels of stress. Yet, due to fears of stigma, societal pressure to “tough it out,” and potential career consequences, few executives get the help they need.

Most leaders want to do the right thing for their employees and for everyone who depends on them. For some people those feelings manifest in a desire to “stay strong” and project an air of invulnerability, which actually closes them off from others. For me, that sense of duty helped push me to set my ego aside and get the support I needed to fulfill my responsibilities.

Everyone needs help in a crisis

As I think about my Best Year, Worst Year, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to seek help from people who can offer professional guidance and support. Over the years, I’ve faced a number of personal challenges, and I hope that sharing what I’ve learned will convince others to get the help they need, especially if they’re in a leadership position.

Don’t try to solve things on your own. People who have strong relationships with their pastor or priest might find comfort in their guidance. I’ve found therapy to be a powerful solution, although I admit that I had to work through some of my internalized stigma at first. My learning journey began with acknowledging that if I had all the answers, I wouldn’t be in this particular situation.

You’re not the only one going through this. Personal issues and challenges have a way of making us feel alone in our struggles. Yet, facing a problem in silence only amplifies the issue, causing you to blame yourself and some imagined personal failing. For example, a parent may be experiencing conflict with a teenager, and they might assume that they’re just a lousy parent. Instead, the friction could be a normal cycle of life.

Most things will pass. Most of the stressors in our lives can be managed or improved to some degree, and in many cases, the issue will come to some sort of conclusion. Certainly there are life and death issues, and the situation with my dad could have gone either way, but many circumstances aren’t at that level.

Your duty as an inclusive leader

My personal challenges over the years have also helped me become a more empathetic – and better – leader. Early in my career, I didn’t really consider how my feedback landed. I just wanted the problem fixed. I now realize that a harsh remark from me could be the emotional tipping point for someone.

What I value now as an inclusive leader is building a workplace culture, alongside my colleagues, where we demonstrate empathy and care for each other. That doesn’t mean that I’ve lowered my standards or expectations, but I also don’t want to create unnecessary stress for my team or exacerbate the challenges that people are already facing. Today, my aim is to balance economic value and empathetic leadership.

Workplace Options recently released the results from its psychological safety study across nine countries, revealing that one of the key stressors for employees no matter where they are in the world is their relationship with their manager. If we are seeing this concern come up again and again, then clearly, leaders are catalysts for the well-being of their team. The leader’s ability to relate to the diverse members of their team has a direct correlation on the positive feelings that people have at work – and ultimately, in their life.

Here’s an example of how I operationalize my inclusive leadership to be better. During one-on-one meetings with my team, I simply ask, “How are you doing?” This isn’t just a throwaway question, because I’m engaged with them as people and authentically care about their well-being. As a leader, if you don’t ask, then you won’t have the opportunity to understand what may be going on below the surface. I’m not saying you should dig into people’s personal lives, but I am suggesting you cultivate a level of sensitivity that enables you to notice when people are working through things.

Find your network of care

If you’re going through an issue that is beyond your ability to cope with, my advice is to get in touch with someone at your company’s EAP. They can address your concerns or connect you with the help you need, whether that’s a mental health professional, financial counselor, or just a sympathetic ear. Other people may feel more comfortable reaching out to their church community or confiding in their spiritual leader. If none of those options work for you, send me a message on LinkedIn. I don’t need to know the details, just enough to understand the situation, and I can point you in the right direction.

Remember, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it.

Now that some time has passed, and my father and my business are both doing well, I can’t help but look back on my Best Year, Worst Year and remember a significant moment of pure joy. The same day that we electronically signed the last few documents for the transaction with Workplace Options, I was with my dad. He had been discharged, and we were taking him home.

For more on inclusive leadership and the power of communication skills to empower leaders and teams, look for my new book The Inclusive Leadership Handbook: Balancing People and Performance for Sustainable Growth, co-authored with Kurt Merriweather, vice president of innovation at The Diversity Movement, published April 29.

About Donald Thompson

Donald Thompson, EY Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 SE Award winner, founded The Diversity Movement (TDM) to fundamentally transform the modern workplace through diversity-led culture change. TDM was recently acquired by Workplace Options, which brings holistic wellbeing services to more than 80 million people in more than 200 countries and territories across the globe. Recognized by Inc., Fast Company and Forbes, Thompson is author of Underestimated: A CEO’s Unlikely Path to Success, hosts the podcast “High Octane Leadership in an Empathetic World” and has published widely on leadership and the executive mindset. As a leadership and executive coach, Thompson has created a culture-centric ethos for winning in the marketplace by balancing empathy and economics. His next book is The Inclusive Leadership Handbook: Balancing People and Performance for Sustainable Growth.

Follow him on LinkedIn for updates on news, events and his podcast, or contact him at info@donaldthompson.com for executive coaching, speaking engagements or DEI-related content. TDM has created LeaderView, a leadership assessment tool that uses cultural competency as a driver for improving whole team performance. To further explore DEI content and issues impacting your work and life, visit TDM Library, a multimedia resource hub that gives leaders a trusted source of DEI content.