Leading is a lonely job. If you have been in any sort of leadership role you know that is true. It’s funny that a role that we perhaps aspired to, and one that may have some cache’ and even leave others a bit envious could be lonely. But it is. Let’s talk about why that is and how we can live with that fact more productively.
In our book From Bud to Boss, Guy Harris and I wrote that once we get promoted to a leadership role, we might find ourselves getting invited to fewer barbeques. If you like barbeque (and a party) as much as I do, that might be a bit unsettling. But it is the reality. Why is that?
You’re on the Team, But You’re Not
If you are an effective leader, you see yourself as a part of (and apart from) your team – and the team agrees. You are on the team, but… and the loneliness comes from the “but.” Sometimes the team may want to talk about things without you around. Sometimes you won’t be invited to a gathering, or the conversation will die down when you walk into the conference room or log into the online meeting. If you build trust and psychological safety with everyone, the gap will be reduced, but it will still exist.
Some Information You Can’t Share
As the leader, you may be privy to information that you aren’t yet at liberty to share. And yet, you need someone to talk to about the changes, implications, and perhaps even the decisions you must make as a result. Talking to your spouse or someone without the context and nuance of the situation is hard and might not be as satisfying as speaking with someone in the situation. And if you do have great relationships with your team, they may be the people you wish you could talk to about those things – because they best understand the situation. But you just can’t. So, who can you talk to?
Some Things People Won’t Understand
Beyond the details of the situation – be it a strategic, staffing, or interpersonal one – it is hard to talk to someone who hasn’t been a leader about leadership situations. Due to a lack of experience or perspective, even if you do share with them, they might not be able to provide help or even much empathy. It is in these times that we may most need someone to talk to, but not really have someone with the needed perspective that is available.
If you are nodding along with me, realizing that (finally!) someone understands your situation, don’t assume I am here to help you cry in your beer. If you feel or have experienced what I’ve just described, know that you aren’t alone. But the point of this article is more than awareness or empathy. The most important question is- if you feel that leadership loneliness, what can you do about it?
Here are three steps I strongly urge you to consider:
- Acknowledge it. As a leader, your role is different. It comes with the territory that sometimes there will be things you can’t talk to your team about – or they won’t want to talk to you about.
- Minimize it. Focus on building high-trust working relationships with your team members, but also the other leaders in your organization. Remember that those peers are part of another team you are on – the leadership team. Many of the things you can’t talk to your team about, you can share with other leaders. Recognize that this may be harder or require greater focus if your team is hybrid or remote. Harder perhaps, but far from impossible.
- Cultivate other relationships. Consciously build a network of others outside your organization or even industry that have experience as a leader or who are leading now. You will be surprised how much they will understand your situation. Even if you don’t want an answer, knowing that someone can lend you their time and ear may be the best thing to reduce your leadership loneliness.
When you take these actions, you will feel better about the fact that leading is a lonely job. But more importantly you will deal with that in a way that makes you a better leader.
Leading is a lonely job – but it is a complex one too. If you are looking for ways to build some of your most important leadership skills, or looking for support for leaders across your organization, consider Remarkable Master Classes. Our growing catalog of effective eLearning courses are taught by me, focused on your leadership success.
Actually, I believe that you missed a key possibility, a model used by most navies on the globe: the XO or #1. I ran a small defense agency for five years. My deputy and I were very close, and I could rely on him to bridge the “gap” between me and the “team.” Doing so requires a great deal of trust. The leader has to decide if, and to what extent, such a relationship is doable.
A good piece for all leaders, Kevin, especially new leaders, but more so leaders who are in remote sites. In the Army, I was often in charge of offices for which my supervisory chain was not located nearby. In the days when the telephone was our primary means of communication, it was challenging to develop peer networks so necessary to help. I highly recommend getting into a good peer network, as you are with colleagues who share similar experiences, so you can seek guidance, match notes, work with others to derive solutions, or even just unload sometimes. In a later federal government position, I established these and had my field leaders link up, and we found it was beneficial to all.