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154: Leaders with Heart Know When to Step Back

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In this episode, Heather interviews Dr. Nikki Johnson, the first ever Chief of Mental Health Services for the Denver Sheriff’s Department. Nikki shares countless caring leadership traits and best practices, and how she came to pick them up along her own leadership journey. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Strive to be empathetic, genuine and non-judgmental. 
  • Stay true to yourself, even in a unique and seemingly opposite environment. 
  • Know when to take a step back to better care for yourself. 
  • Be your own best cheerleader. 
  • Take the time for proper self-care. 
  • Place boundaries around the things you value, and make sure you honor them as well as others. 

Nikki J. Johnson Psy.D., CAS currently serves as the Chief of Mental Health Services at the Denver Sheriff Department (DSD).

She has practiced as a licensed psychologist in the state of Colorado since 2008 and as a Certified Addiction Specialist since 2010. Dr. Johnson has worked in corrections for the past 15 years, with 7 years of her career working for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Dr. Johnson also served as a professional board member on the Colorado State Board of Psychologist Examiners, and as the Program Coordinator of Jail-Based Evaluation and Restoration for the Office of Behavioral Health.

Dr. Johnson also served as the Vice President of Correctional Psychology Associates and as the Director of Mental Health at the Jefferson County Detention Facility, implementing a Behavioral Health Unit and Special Needs Unit. She also served as the facility and staff trainer for Mental Health Awareness, Suicide Prevention, Identification of Personality Disorders, Working within a Special Housing Unit, M-0.5 Transportation Hold, and Restrictive Housing.

Dr. Johnson earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Kansas State University, a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, Counseling Track from Regis University and a Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology from the Colorado School of Professional Psychology in Colorado Springs.

New Year Goals

I have a couple of goals for 2021. The first one is to develop a competency restoration program. This is a pilot program of 12 beds, where we can provide that competency restoration treatment for those individuals and expedite that process. Another one is to provide a crisis response team that will be made up of civilians within the jail system. So, the first line of response will be someone in khakis and a polo, who hopefully will approach an individual in a non-threatening manner and work to decrease those number of crises in the jail system.

I'll be looking at what we can do for the mental health services for incarcerated individuals and helping them to return to the community hopefully better than they came in. – Dr. Nikki Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Taking A Step Back

I tend to look for strengths within individuals and build upon those. There’s a time and a place to give feedback, and to give critical feedback to employees or individuals. Most people work well having more of that strength-based approach and giving them that independence to grow within their own professional career. A lot of times we may see leaders that hold people back because they don’t want to lose them within their agency. For me it’s important that I meet them where they’re at, try to build upon that journey for them with their strengths, and see what direction they want to go. Even if it means they may have to leave the agency we work at together. Working in my particular field, we often give ourselves emotionally to the point where it’s called compassion fatigue. You truly are completely exhausted emotionally and have nothing left to give anyone. I think back to times where I was at that point and I became very cynical. I’m always a very optimistic and hopeful person in general. So, I knew it wasn’t me. When I was having a very cynical, negative view of what I was doing, you start to question your worldview in a deeper level. When I hit that point, it was definitely on another level where I truly had to leave my position and move on to something else. So, I really handled that by leaving a job that I did enjoy and in a lot of ways was I good at. Because of the vicarious trauma, and the emotional fatigue that came with that, I had to leave, take a step back, do something a little different, and take a year to recover and to move on to my next step in leadership. I think it’s a matter of seeing, and recognizing whether it’s taking a step back, changing roles, taking care of yourself, or giving up some things.

Go back to self-care. It's important to not only talk about it but to do it. – Dr. Nikki Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

As high achievers, we're always wanting to do more. We see more things we can do and more problems we can solve. It's really hard to take that step back sometimes. – Dr. Nikki Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Self-care and Encouragement

I think a lot of the skills that I have as a psychologist actually transfer well to being a leader because a lot of it has to do with empathy, and being genuine and non-judgmental. A lot of those skills need to be in a leadership role as well. Those come naturally for me because I am a psychologist, so it’s easy to transfer those into relationships with employees or individuals working with me. It’s important to be your own best cheerleader. That’s hard to do, especially as women. We’re not always reinforced to be confident or to be in a leadership role. But I do think it’s important for us to be our own biggest cheerleaders, where we don’t necessarily let outside voices that aren’t supporting our passion, drive, and vision to stand in the way of that. Not everyone’s going to understand what drives us or why we want to do the things we want to do. But I think it’s important to stay confident in that in order to be your best self. The second thing is going back to self-care. I think a lot of leaders talk a lot about self-care, but then you see them in action and they’re not taking care of themselves. They’re completely running themselves ragged. It’s important to not only talk about it, but to do it.

Try to see when people are truly ready to make that next step for themselves whether it's personally or professionally. – Dr. Nikki Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

It's been important to work my way to a leadership role to be able to assist the population in the best way that I can. – Dr. Nikki Johnson #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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