Why do so many leaders allude to feelings of loneliness in their roles?
Is there an expectation that stepping into such roles there will be times when the weight of responsibility, and its accompanying accountability, will feel like a solitary endeavour?
I would like to share a thought. I don’t say it applies to everyone, but I know it applies to some.
Leadership comes with a large laundry bag of well-worn myths and clichés. We all have examples of those we have seen do well (and less well) with its responsibility; and we may ourselves know the feeling of what it is like when we had that responsibility too. But why would it feel lonely? Loneliness is a very specific and emotive descriptor that conjures a sense of isolation, of lacking support, of being friendless. It feels deeply uncomfortable.
Before I go further, I know very well that we can feel lonely in a crowded room, that we can feel unsupported despite offers of help and that we can be cautious about who we allow to be close to our heart. I am not dismissive of the emotional weight of responsibility and how this might, for some of us, feel that it takes the air from our lungs and glues us to behaviours we cannot seem to move away from. However, I also want to suggest that some of us may, some of the time, have been the author of our own sense of solitude. Sometimes we are the architect of our emotional exile.
Remember when we were young? The feedback we often cherished was positive, ambitious and affirming, but such feedback might also sew the seeds of our later fully grown vulnerability. I imagine something like this might have been be said:
“Paul gets things done. He is a self-starter, decisive, has good judgement and copes well under pressure. A future leader for sure”.
We would all be flattered, wouldn’t we? I think we would all bank that description and let it become a corporate truth about our credentials. Then, following our promotion a year or so later, the Chief Executive might send a warm message around the whole office:
“I am delighted to welcome Paul to the executive team. A good mind, a track record of delivering and someone we all can rely on to get things done.”
Again, we would share this our mum and have a quiet “look at me” moment. All upside, right?
However, these patterns of feedback are reinforcing behavioural expectations; in truth they are laying down tramlines to a destination that is a hollowed-out version of our hopes and expectations. If we are not careful our route is now fixed, and it is a pathway to nowhere we should want to go, because how do you ask for help when you are the guy who always gets things done? How do you admit to feeling inadequate when the corporate truth says that we are all reliant on you? How do you tell us that you need support, when your role is to support us?
I say this cautiously, and I know it is not for everyone, but we should not let leadership myths and flattery be the threads from which we try to weave our own leadership style. It is not good for us; it is not good for those we want to help and most importantly of all it is not good for those who want to help us.
Leadership is about character. It is about people who care, who want to effect change and make a difference. Leadership therefore is about all of us, and for all of us, because in this way we are all leaders.
In this way we are also all vulnerable. We do not know everything. We do not have limitless energy. We are often wrong and we will cry when we are overwhelmed. These things are also leadership behaviours.
My hope is that the warm note from the Chief Executive I mentioned earlier, might in future say something like this:
“I am delighted to welcome Paul to the executive team. A good mind, a track record of delivering and someone we all can rely on to get things done. He is also terrible at asking for help, so help him anyway. He will get things wrong too, so he’ll need you to point things out. And while he is a good person, he is definitely not a superhero, so look after him please.”
Leadership is not a fantasy story of heroic daring do, it is a complex undulating narrative of how we learn to help people be their best, and how we learn to allow those same people to help us be our best too.
It should not be lonely. We should try not to follow a path where we find ourselves alone. Leadership is a shared endeavour, one where we are vulnerable together, but where we can also shine together. Please take care.