Leadership has many benefits but it also has many challenges and many unfortunate truths. One of those unfortunate truths is that leadership can often be lonely. This loneliness can be a perception but the real fact is that it is true.
I first learned this as a young fire captain in the fire station when I realized that as my responsibility grew, so did my challenge to just be “one of the crew”. I had to make tough decisions where those around me did not always agree and this was initially painful. As I promoted up higher in the ranks, I realized that this was amplified. Quickly I realized that people not only didn’t care about my problems, in some sick and totally human way, they were happy that I had them.
After working with many top executives, many CEOs and other members of executive leadership teams, we often help them deal with the complexity of emotions that come with being a leader. There are many hard decisions that even on the best day will be unpopular. This fear of being unpopular can contribute to a feeling of loneliness. There is also the issue of confidentiality. Due to the multitude of complications that any decision can have, leaders often have to hold their thoughts and decisions close to their chest until the final moment. This can contribute to a leader feeling deceitful, detached, and again lonely. Additionally, leaders must play a multitude of roles in a day. From being the ultimate decision maker to being the motivator, to just being an equal partner, or as many of us know to just being an unprepared parent. As William Shakespeare described in Richard II’s dilemma: “Thus I play in one person many people, and none contented.” This lack of clarity can lead to feelings of loneliness.
Finally, there is the loneliness of insecurity. Having worked with many leaders and teams that have gone through significant reorganizations, we have seen how tough they are. For those who leave the company, there is the loneliness of leaving friends, leaving the company you have helped shape and build, and of course leaving your source of income. For those who stay with the company, there is the loneliness of losing friends, of losing familiar infrastructure and stability, of losing the sense of security that existed before the big change, and of having to develop all new teams and support systems. For both those who stay and those who leave, the feelings of loneliness are completely normal.
From a Tignum perspective, what can you do to help comfort these feelings? First, acknowledge to yourself that these feelings exist because you are human. This means also accepting that these feelings come with the job and since you chose to be a leader you must accept all that comes with that. Second, embrace your lonely times as a great source of self-reflection, self-growth, and re-motivation for the future. Third, take time to grieve the endings that come with being a leader (both through sadness and celebration). Being able to let go of the past is a critical step in being open to try the untried in the future. Fourth, always remember that you are not your job and therefore maintaining a life away from your work is critical to staying grounded in who you really are. Finally, make your own Sustainable High Performance a priority. During times of loneliness, it is easy to sacrifice your own habits that you know are critical to building your energy, resilience, mental agility, and executional stamina. Without these things you not only won’t be a great leader, you also won’t be a great you.
As always, I’d love to hear what you think.
By Scott Peltin
Founder & Chief Performance Officer