January 8, 2020

The Loneliness of Leadership

Being a leader is great! It can be stimulating, invigorating, fulfilling and incredibly rewarding. But there’s another characteristic that leaders rarely talk about, but which frequently haunts them – it can be dammed lonely!

It’s rarely talked about because individuals mistakenly regard it as something that only affects them and which is a weakness, even an inability to cope.  Many won’t even consciously acknowledge their feelings, even though I am regulary told by leaders that they don’t have anyone they can turn to, even for an “off the record” conversation.

These are understandable (if somewhat old world) reasons why this is a difficult subject to discuss but that’s not helping anyone so let’s get talking about the subject now!

The truth is, even if you have a family, a wide circle of friends and an active social life, the demands of being THE leader frequently impose a degree of isolation.

You’re ultimately responsible for your company’s strategy, performance and results – not to mention the livelihood of everyone who works for you.  They look to you for inspiration and direction.  You have to make the tough calls and the unpopular decisions.  Even if you’ve built a talented management team with whom you discuss, debate and delegate, there are always things you must deal with and carry alone. No pressure there then!

Unchecked, this situation can turn into a vicious cycle of working too hard, taking too few breaks and sleeping too little.  If you do not invest time in yourself and develop strategies for coping with loneliness, you run the risk of emotional and physical exhaustion – even burnout.  And that affects not only you, but also your family and the company you’ve worked so hard to build.

So where in all this busyness do you make time to focus on your own development and how do you address the challenge of loneliness? Who will tell you that, in truth, you need to?  Who do you go to for council?  How do you avoid your private life being subsumed by your public self? When, where and with whom can you be unsure or even vulnerable?

The first thing to realise is that you are not the only one who feels like this – most leaders experience it.  In a Harvard Business Review study, half of the CEOs surveyed reported feelings of loneliness that negatively affected their performance; that figure rose to 70% for new CEOs.

When leaders talk to me about this challenge, first I congratulate them on having the self-awareness and courage to raise the subject.  This is the first step in moving forward.  Then I advise them not to try and “fix” the issue on their own but rather to find someone they can genuinely dialogue with.  Although your self-reliance, resilience and tenacity make you a good leader, you don’t have to do this alone and shouldn’t try.

Finding the right person can be tricky.  Often CEOs will say it doesn’t feel right, and probably isn’t fair, to discuss their concerns with their colleagues because none are true peers.  Equally they might find it difficult to talk to their non-exec’s or even the Chair because these people have a potentially significant influence on their career, so how vulnerable can they appear to them?

If this is true for you, my advice is to find someone who can understand your situation and with whom you can have conversations free of nuance, inference or desire for personal gain.  He or she might be a mentor, a peer in another industry, or an executive coach.  Whoever they are, they must be able to provide a safe place in which you can challenge yourself, model new behaviours and skills, make mistakes and learn valuable lessons.

When you find the right person the benefits are significant.  If you want to change aspects of your leadership style, they can hold up a mirror for you and give honest, candid coaching.  They can be your sounding board as you formulate new ideas about strategies and markets and provide a safe feedback mechanism, helping you understand where they are challenged or challenging.  They can help you spot and address the warning signs when you are becoming overextended, emotionally overwhelmed, or starting to burn out.  In short, they can help you look after yourself and become the best version of you.

When looking for this person I believe that last statement is the real test for finding the right person to support you. Ask yourself, are they are totally invested in you becoming the best version of yourself you can be?  Are they 100% on your side with no personal motives for the advice they give?  It doesn’t mean they never disagree with you.  On the contrary, they probably will – and frequently – but they will always do it with your best interests in mind.

You have instinctively invested in assets that improve your company’s performance, so shouldn’t you be investing in yourself to help you be the best version of you, realising your full potential?

To do this find the one stakeholder in your life that you should never have to manage – when you find them that is your ideal executive coach who can help you deal with the loneliness of leadership.

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Here at Changemaker, we support organisations and individuals in delivering sustainable and lasting change.  When supporting leadership development, we work with the human being, supporting leaders in becoming the best version of themselves that they can be. If you want to learn more about us, take a look at our website (www.changemaker.org.uk) or email us at info@changemaker.org.uk.

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