Chief Executive Insights

Leadership is lonely – but we can act to lessen that

Mark Berridge

There were many occasions during my career that I mused “leadership is lonely”. This was triggered by the responsibility of setting the decisions we must make as leaders and the related pressure of cascading the clarity of direction and establishing the unity of purpose to embed those decisions.

I recall sharing that refrain with colleagues, aiming to convey my appreciation of the burden they carried. I expect it was a phrase I learned from other leaders above and around me. I wonder if its common usage stems from the famous Theodore Roosevelt “The Man in the Arena” speech, which inspires our willingness to dare, to strive, to fall short with honour. With that agency to act the speech also implies isolation. Perhaps the notion was also influenced by Ernest Shackleton’s quote “Loneliness is the penalty of leadership…”. No doubt Shackleton felt acute personal and professional accountability for the decisions he made that could and did result in loss of life. Maybe it simply reflects that effective teams (rightly) value trust in and respect of their leader ahead of proximity of friendship.

Whatever its beginnings, “leadership is lonely” sustains because for many there is truth in the idiom. That gravity becomes more acute the more senior we become. We have less and eventually no internal peers to confide in whilst our roles require more decisions, and the consequences of those decisions intensify. Consultation is necessary but finite – if it is over-used (or drifts into consensus) it can be judged as indecisiveness, undermining role authority. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, making us guarded about vulnerabilities such as self-doubt.

Can we manage this isolation of leadership rather than simply accepting it as one of the burdens of promotion? Unless we do, we might extend this sense of aloneness into our homes and personal relationships, finding it challenging to compartmentalise the office from those we care about. We may find ourselves not really listening as our loved ones talk because we are still considering our work conundrums. We may be on the sidelines of our children’s sporting fields but watching in “multi-tasking mode” and not fully present. These are missed opportunities to embrace our precious relationships and refresh our minds.

I contend that we can arrest the learned behaviour that is “normal” for leaders to become increasingly isolated. Here are some strategies that I value to assist you promoting engagement over loneliness.

Mentorships

I value my mentorship interactions as a mutual outlet to explore challenges and pathways. Mentors that came from external training courses, leaders above me, and a person I happened to sit next to on a plane – our chat creating an ongoing bond. Listening to mentees provided me diversity in perspective, and the time spent discussing their challenges catalysed clarity in my knowledge and methods. As well as nurturing my mindset and yielding personal growth, they are relationships I know I can count on in any time of need.

Peer Groups

Forming peer groups from intra or inter-company training opportunities and networking events provides a safe space to discuss our challenges and uncertainties. The more extensively we invest in these relationships, the deeper the trust and confidence that underpins transparent engagement. Firm bonds can form quickly when you have common challenges and uncertainties to work through together. For example, I have a new, amazing, peer group formed 15 months ago as part of my journey to become an author.

Being Present

Prioritise being fully present during out of work interests. It builds more balanced leaders in two important ways.

Firstly, by engaging with our families and friends we re-energise ourselves. As well as providing time out from our work pressures, the moments we have with them are precious and all too fleeting. Take the opportunity to listen and learn from the curiosity, experiences and perspectives of our loved ones by being present. 

Secondly, by appreciating our non-work interests, we become more inclined to talk to our work teams about their loved ones and other interests. We promote engagement over isolation.

Change our dialogue

A powerful tool for any leader is to change the focus of your words. Don’t perpetuate commentary that “leadership is lonely”. Instead celebrate the power of your interactions – how your non-work activities, peer groups and mentorships support your growth as a leader. By redirecting our attention – in the language we use with others and ourselves – from that sense of isolation to the benefits of engagement, we amplify the propensity for interaction. 

Leadership is not best served lonely

Leadership demands that we must make decisions and deal with the consequences that flow from those decisions. By being open, transparent, and consultative with our teams as we build to our decisions, our colleagues and teams are more engaged with and committed to the challenges ahead. By elevating our engagement at work and at home, we are enriched by the curiosity, experiences and perspectives of our colleagues and loved ones. We demonstrate and foster a culture of reaching out for and appreciating the insights and interests of others. We become stronger leaders.


Written by Mark Berridge.
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Mark Berridge
Mark Berridge’s high-flying transnational corporate career came crashing down in seconds when a devastating road cycling incident turned his world upside down. A severe spinal cord injury triggered a complex physical recovery and caused Mark to renegotiate his identity. He speaks and writes about the influences and attitudes that helped him tackle these impossible moments. His inspiring book, A Fraction Stronger (Major Street Publishing $32.99) is drawn from this lived experience, shaped in a way that helps readers become a fraction stronger too.


Mark Berridge is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.