We expect leaders to be strong, decisive, and resilient. We don’t expect that leadership is lonely. But, it can be. Leaders have the pressure of an entire company on their shoulders. And they carry that weight all by themselves, knowing that despite all the information and input they receive, the final decisions are theirs and theirs alone. This blog post will explore some of the factors contributing to loneliness among leaders and offer suggestions on how you can combat this feeling.
Why Leadership is Lonely
In the business world, leadership is often a lonely role. Leadership requires you to take risks and make decisions that have consequences for you and the people on your team. The pressures of balancing company demands and personal life often lead leaders to feel isolated, alone in the decisions they make for their team.
I will never forget the first time this feeling hit me in a leadership role. I led a division that was the rope in a tug of war between two Fortune 500 companies. My team of nearly 100 people was struggling and in crisis. And all were looking to me for guidance on what to do and how to react.
And I was struggling with everything they were with no one to turn to. Many of my career mentors were with one company or the other and their influence, while helpful, was biased. I recall sitting at home on a Saturday night with my family out of town, struggling with the weight of it all. I didn’t have anywhere to turn. This was the isolation of leadership.
I knew that whatever decision I made would have positive and negative consequences for my team and me. And of all the parties involved, my greatest loyalty and concern were for my team. And I knew that our greatest strength was in holding that team together. So that required me to put my anxiety to the side and keep that team together. It was a strange feeling to be surrounded by people and still feel so isolated.
Leadership is lonely because no matter what happens, it all comes down to you. You will make the final decision on nearly every issue of importance. And whatever comes out of that decision, it sits on you. And if it goes well, everyone will celebrate. And if it goes poorly, all eyes will turn to you.
The Toll of Leadership
A client once told me that one quality of solid leaders is that they can bear the pain of leadership better than most people. And, I think they’re right.
Leadership’s toll can include anxiety, exhaustion, and depression. This intensifies when the leader struggles to separate themselves from the emotion of their decisions, especially the difficult ones.
The toll can be physical as much as mental. Look no further than how US presidents look on inauguration day and how they look four to eight years later. They may be an extreme example, but leadership impacts you physically. The stress can manifest as exhaustion, ulcers, and high blood pressure.
And if leaders do not find ways to manage the toll better, they will become far less effective in their role. They may disconnect emotionally, miss time due to illness, or find their emotions intensifying, resulting in inappropriate behavior.
Reduce Leadership Isolation
Leadership is all about maintaining a balance between being the leader that everyone follows while still retaining your sense of self. There are many ways to build up leadership skills without isolating yourself in the process, but it’s crucial to maintain stress management and stay engaged with work and others. Whether you’re listening for feedback on an idea or taking time off for personal reflection, put some thought into how best you can care for yourself too!
I am no fan of the phrase “self-care.” I have no problem with the concept, however. What are you doing as a leader to take care of yourself? Are you physically active? Do you meditate or pray regularly. When was the last time you disconnected and took a real vacation? Heck, when was the last time you took a weekend off?
A system of support around you is also a crucial success factor for leaders. That support system could be other leaders you meet regularly, either one-to-one or in a group setting. It can help to know that you are not alone. And hearing others’ struggles and successes can put yours in a better perspective.
Another option is to hire an executive coach. This can help you in multiple ways, depending on your goals. If you know the changes you need to reduce your isolation, they can help you be accountable to your plan. Or, if you don’t see a path forward out of isolation, a coach can work with you to develop that plan.
Leadership is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. Whatever you choose to do, please commit to pull yourself away from isolation and get the perspective you need for a long and successful professional career and personal life. If you’d like help getting perspective on your situation, set up an introductory call where we can explore it together.