THE BLOG
09/26/2013 05:27 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Intrusive Leadership and Saving Lives

"I am disciplined, physically and mentally tough, trained and proficient in my warrior tasks and drills." The Army Soldier's Creed

Recent tragedy at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., has forced the nation to reflect on a topic that is rarely discussed and often ignored: mental health care. This important issue is not just for lawmakers and advocates to address, however. Leaders must address the mental health of our subordinates every day.

I serve as a noncommissioned officer in the Army Reserve, and during a drill weekend last year, I led a discussion with Soldiers on mental health. It was not an easy talk. Service members are expected to embody strength and toughness.

To start the session, I painted a picture of those we serve with; the missions our nation expects us to accomplish; and the hard training we go through. I then asked them to imagine that one of their comrades was struggling, unable to carry his weight and forcing us to slow down. I asked: How did that make them feel?

They were all resentful. When everyone works hard to complete the mission, it's natural to be annoyed, even angry, at someone who is falling behind. They were even less sympathetic when I asked how they would feel if this Soldier had always struggled, maybe couldn't pass a physical fitness test, or was usually late.

Then I asked them: What would they do if this Soldier asked them for help, or just to talk?

They wrestled with the question, because it touched on an internal conflict: Equal to the value Soldiers put on strength and toughness is an emphasis on teamwork. This theoretical Soldier was a member of our team, and we never leave anyone behind. But in a group of high performers, it's natural to ostracize those who can't keep up. For good or for bad, this happens often.

Finally, I asked them how they would feel if this person confided in them about troubles at home, with kids, with finances, with his or her marriage. What would they do with that information? Would they help their fellow Soldier, maybe offer to carry some of his load, share words of encouragement? They all nodded.

Then I asked how often any of their Soldiers confided personal struggles in them. The consensus: "Very rarely." And that is the problem.

The theoretical Soldier isn't just theoretical. A friend of mine confided that one of his Soldiers attempted suicide on his recent deployment to Afghanistan. Everyone thought this man was lazy, couldn't keep up, was "weird." Rather than helping, fellow Soldiers shut him out. Ultimately, he tried to take his own life. After his attempt, the Soldier's unit discovered that his toddler had been sick, and the Soldier lost sleep for weeks looking for answers from doctors as the man's parents cared for his son while he was deployed. Without enough rest, his performance suffered. Even as he fought to keep his family going, his comrades in arms believed he was slacking. If he had reached out and asked for help, things could have gone differently.

Leaders in every kind of organization, in and outside the military, must do more to take care of our own. People aren't going to just come to us and ask for support. Changing mindsets requires a change in leadership style. We must be intrusive in our leadership. We need to ask hard questions of those who are struggling, without passing judgment. How are we supposed to lead those working for us if we don't know what is happening in their lives? A team is only as strong as its weakest link -- but a weak link can be strengthened with support and compassion.

Ostracizing, criticizing or ignoring personal circumstances hurts the individual and the team. Turning our backs on someone in need cuts that person off from those who can help. In some cases, asking the right questions -- or simply listening -- can save a life. This is the purest form of leadership.

We all have the ability to place our Soldiers' needs first. But first, it's up to us to find out what those needs are.

"I know my Soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own." The Army's NCO Creed

This post is part of a special Huffington Post series, "Invisible Casualties," in which we shine a spotlight on suicide-prevention efforts within the military. Every weekday in September, we'll feature a different blog post by someone who is either an expert in the field, who has been affected by a suicide, or who has contemplated suicide. To see all the posts in the series, as well as original reporting, audio and video, click here.

If you or someone you know would like to contribute to our series, send an email to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com.

And please, if you or someone you know needs help, call the national crisis line for the military and veterans, 1-800-273-8255, or send a text to 838255.

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