One of the first warnings I was given when someone recognised I was a natural leader was that leadership is a lonely place. I was 16 when these words were spoken over me, and nearly 10 years later, I can empathise with these words. There have been moments when it can feel incredibly isolating, and I watched people I hold in incredibly high regard be crippled by the pressure and loneliness they have experienced.
However, the definitive tone of these words implies that there is no other way. That leadership results in loneliness. And this I find I must disagree with empathically. Loneliness in leadership is a choice, even if you might not realise that you have decided to opt for the lonely path. But there is hope – no matter how far on the journey you are, whether you are beginning the journey, or considering giving leadership up because you are feeling burnt out, you can make decisions today to help you prevent the trap of loneliness.

Culture

A key responsibility that you have as a leader is to set the culture. Peter Drucker said that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. That is not to say that strategy is not important, because it is, but the culture you set as a leader sets the tone for the whole organisation or team. Culture is hard to quantify or measure, but everyone knows when it is unhealthy! Developing culture is another topic entirely, yet it is intrinsic to protecting yourself and your leaders from feeling lonely.
Encourage and cultivate a culture of authenticity and openness with those you lead and though you lead with. Of course, there will be things you cannot share with them for legitimate reasons, but you can still find time to develop relationships with people! A culture that encourages hierarchy and exclusivity of leadership will breed loneliness and isolation – so avoid it!

Access to Information

One of the isolating factors of leadership is that you as you rise in leadership, you gain access to more information – often information which is confidential or unhelpful to share with your entire team. This can be distancing for the leader, but it doesn’t have to isolate you! Be open and honest with your team when you cannot discuss an issue, or when information is need-to-know only. The reality is that too much information can overwhelm and be unhelpful.
Your team will appreciate honesty, and this will help to manage expectations. This is also very much linked to building a healthy culture; a culture of high trust will minimise this impact regarding the isolation of leadership.

Brave Face vs Authentic Relationships

There will be times as a leader when you are required to put on a ‘brave face’ when there are difficulties. As the leader of the team, it is your responsibility to steer the ship, and to keep everyone together! This can be very difficult as you will naturally want to confide in someone, but it is not always helpful to do this with the team as it can damage your credibility with your team. This can make it hard to forge meaningful relationships with those you are leading, and this is something that will affect you as a leader more than those you lead, as they can confide in you.
It is worthwhile finding a confidante – perhaps someone leading another team or department in your organisation, or someone in a similar role elsewhere. They need to be someone you can trust and who understands your context. Relationships like these take time to cultivate, but are so precious!

Find Friends who ‘Get It’

We all have friends, but if you are a leader you are often in the minority, and the more responsibility you fid yourself with, the more of a minority you are! This means that your friends and family might not always understand your challenges or your context. This is why, as a leader, you need to find friends who get it and get you. Whenever I consider this, I am drawn to this proverb from the Bible:
‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.’ – Proverbs 27:17
There is so much wisdom in this verse, there are two key points I want to highlight. The first thing to note is that like sharpens like. Two people of likemindedness and ability sharpen one another, and it is mutual. There is a mutual understanding, and therefore an ability to speak into one another’s lives and improve each other’s effectiveness. The second observation is that this process is not smooth. When iron sharpens iron, there is heat, sparks and friction. It is not always comfortable, but it produces fruit! To avoid isolation, find friends who can challenge and sharpen you because they understand you and your challenges.

Protect your energy levels

The majority of us who lead are above and beyond people. This is often why others entrust us with responsibility, it is one of our greatest strengths! However, it can also be one of our greatest weaknesses. To prevent loneliness and isolation from creeping into every aspect of your life, protect your energy levels. It can be easy to spend all of your energy at work, picking up extra projects in the evening, or staying late often. We can fool ourselves into thinking it just a season we are in – yet so often it becomes the norm. There will always be more to do. Here are two reasons why protecting your energy levels can help to minimise loneliness:
Firstly, when you spend all of your energy on work, you neglect your friends and family. Your family, especially your spouse and children, need and deserve your attention. Protect time and energy for them. There is no formula for how to do this, but I would encourage you, if life is busy, ensure you have time in your diary for them, and ensure that you have protected your energy levels to give them your best.
Secondly, when your energy levels are depleted and not allowed to refill, you will burnout. If you burn out, you will not be able to lead effectively, and your personal wellbeing will suffer. Protect your energy levels to protect your own wellbeing. This protects yourself, your family and your team! Sometimes I have seen people wear burnout as a badge – it really isn’t, and you should put safeguards in place to prevent it!

Learn to switch off

Now more than ever, the boundaries between work and home life are blurred. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified this and made it harder to switch off. As leaders, we feel the pressure to deliver and to exceed expectations, but we need to learn to switch off in order to be more productive when we are switched on! Prioritise what matters most. Time off, to rest and spend quality time with your family is important – without it, your work can become all consuming and you will quickly find those feelings of loneliness creeping in.
Find the things that help you to switch off, and if necessary, leave your phone or laptop out of sight! Taking time out increases your ability to think creatively and to respond well to stressful situations when they do arise.

APPLICATION

I have discussed a few ways in which I believe loneliness in leadership can be avoided, or at the very least minimised. Consider whether you need to work on one of these to have a better life balance. I’d love to know if you have any other top tips too! Comment below.

Discussion Rules: I’m not into thought policing at all, but I am big on honour and respect. Opinionated is fine, but if you’re ill-mannered or nasty, expect to see your comments disappear. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (All credit to Tim Ferris’ site who I totally took this idea from).

Libby Arnold

Author Libby Arnold

More posts by Libby Arnold

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