Friday, October 10, 2014

Leadership Loneliness

Leadership Loneliness

I met with a colleague today.  Call it a critical friend session, sharing of ideas, solving of all things to do with writing in classrooms and senseless data collection and of course, an opportunity to share and offload.   Speaking of senseless data collection, anyone else find the weeks at school issue here in NZ a pointless muddying of the curriculum level waters?  I digress – that’s a post for later.

Our conversation, after what was a most productive session, ended up with a discussion on the loneliness of leadership.   Not in a ‘woe is me’ kind of way, but in a reflective, slightly somber, realities of the job kind of way.

It got me wondering.

Leadership is lonely.  It is a place of great responsibility, where the buck stops with you and you hold all the cards of accountability.  It is irrelevant what leadership structure you have in place.  It could be hierarchal, non hierarchal, democratic, contemporary, traditional, devolved or any other kind of model you can think of.  It doesn’t matter. Irrespective of the structure, there is ultimately one person who holds the can should trouble come knocking, and that is the leader.

It is this level of accountability and responsibility that ultimately creates an invisible barrier between the leader and the rest of the team.

There are things we don’t share because they are not beneficial to share, and there are things we cant say, because as a leader your words are powerful.  Sometimes something innocent you say can be taken out of context and immeasurable amounts of damage ensues and you can be none the wiser.

At times we can’t be completely open because as leaders we are privy to confidential information that we are not able to share, and if we need some advice on personnel issues, especially in schools, we are limited to who we can speak to.

Leadership can be lonely when things are going in a less than desirable way, and trouble is on the horizon.  We worry about who we can trust to share our woes with because leadership can be competitive, and we toggle between wanting to talk to someone about it but not wanting to admit to others that the road is proving rocky.  No one wants to feel inadequate.

When there is a viper in the midst, causing grief and spreading trouble, especially if they are popular on the team, counteracting that is fraught with issues and leadership loneliness is the by product. Sometimes we must deal with bullies, unprofessional behaviour and incompetence.  Knowing who you can trust and turn to for support as you navigate these difficult aspects of leadership - aspects we all know about but do not often share and discuss - are some of the biggest causes of leadership loneliness.  It can eat at you, if you allow it, chipping away at your self esteem and self belief.

Leadership is about making the tough calls, and sometimes those decisions are not going to be popular.  Leaders are charged with doing what is right and in the best interests of their school, organization or business.  Consensus is always ideal but sometimes the leader needs to set aside the cloak of ‘popularity', employ a backbone of steel and make the call.

Leadership loneliness can take its toll.  Like an invasive disease it can be as bad for us as smoking or overeating.  It can take its emotional toll, impact on our immune system, speed up the ageing process and leave us with sleepless nights.

Combating the loneliness of leadership is not necessarily a one stop solution fix, but there are strategies that you can use, strategies you can tailor make for your situation.

Strategies for Combating Leadership Loneliness:


Find other colleagues in similar roles to you that you trust, and build up your professional networks. All of us (yes that includes the ones that look like they walk on water) have had leadership skirmishes and days where they feel lonely.  Talk, share and offload. I can't think of a single networking meeting I have had where the opportunity to share what's ontop hasn't featured in some way or shape.  It never fails to amaze me how often a colleague is having a tough time and was sufferering in silence.  Notice those who seem to have been missing in action or never turn up for collegial events.  Chances are they are struggling and could do with your support.  Remember, we are in this together.

Family and Friends

The power of the people we love to keep us sane and grounded is immeasurable.  The irony is that when we are most at our loneliness in leadership, that is when we need them the most.  Don't be tempted to wallow and push them away.  Share your troubles and your journey - the good and the bad.  That old adage of a problem shared is a problem halved, makes sense.   Sometimes we don't like to burden them, or we think they won't understand.  That may be the case but they can offer you a shoulder and a hug - never underestimate the power of a hug!

Have a life outside of work

Find a hobby, something you enjoy doing, or play a sport.  My happy place is the beach and my stress buster is the gym.  Finding something that makes you happy and fulfilled outside of work keeps you balanced and grounded.

Critical Friend/Professional Supervision/Mentor/Coach

This is a really important sanity saver.  Having an impartial person who understands your leadership position and the ebbs and flow of your role is a godsend.  They are the people you can turn to when you need to ask the questions, offload the concerns too and seek advice from.  I have been fortunate to have had such valued people in my professional life - many have been my lifeline during stormy periods.

Work to establish a shared collective efficacy culture

If your team has engagement, ownership and is a part of a shared vision, the likelihood of having to navigate many storms alone is diminished. It doesn't take the ultimate responsibility away but it does make the journey easier.

Teach your emerging leaders resiliency

If you can protect your team from the frustrations of when you feel isolated and give them strategies for coping should they feel the loneliness of leadership, then you do them a great service. None of us understand it until we get there. That includes your middle and emerging leaders. It may not be at the same level as yours but it's presence inevitably shows itself.

Watch who you confide in

This speaks for itself. Surround yourself with those you trust.

Believe in yourself 

Watch your self talk.  It can be easy to fall into the 'woe is me' category and blame ourselves and others, to feel pity for ourselves or to think that we are failures.  How often do we chant the affirmation mantras but deep down fail to believe?  You are not the only leader to sometimes wake up and not want to go to work - but remember that state is normal and most importantly, it is temporary. Believe in yourself.  Back yourself, and remind yourself of why you are a leader.

Avoid destructive self soothing

It can be easy to drown your sorrows, attempt to deal with stress by smoking it away or to eat your way out of loneliness.  Don't - there are healthier options and you don't deserve to punish yourself in this way.

Find ways to seek feedback

Talk to your team and seek feedback in ways appropriate to you.  It is not easy to listen to dissent, but it can give you valuable insights and possible ways forward.

Despite it's lonely moments, leadership is not without it's rewards. 

For me, it is always about giving back and making a difference. It is what keeps me motivated and keeps me going.  Find your motivation and remember, you're not alone, we are out there with you!

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He doesn’t set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. In the end, leaders are much like eagles… they do not flock; you find them one at a time.” - Unknown

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