January 29, 2019
The Loneliness of Leadership
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I have a plaque on my desk that reads: “The loneliest place of all is reserved for the leader." I believe this had been attributed to Churchill, but many others have repeated this phrase. And you know what? It’s true! But why?
In Shakespeare’s King Henry IV, it is said that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." The leader has to make the tough calls. The leader must often distance themselves from the masses. The leader is often perceived as higher and distant, even when they do not wish to be. Even despite the best attempts, the leader may appear intimidating. Let’s examine a few of these points:
As a leader, you inevitably will make decisions that will lead to rewards or difficult consequences. This may be something as simple as negotiating a new purchasing agreement, or as difficult as closing down a 300-person call center operation. In these times, there is often only a small circle of individuals you can counsel with to seek guidance. You cannot poll your team to get their opinion. You must use your experience and judgment to make decisions that may impact (positively or negatively) perhaps hundreds or thousands of lives. These weigh on you and there is no one to share the burden…and you do this day after day.
There is also a reality that everyone recognizes your faults and poor decisions, but people rarely speak up to let you know that you are doing a good job. We can pretend to be emotionally intelligent and well-grounded, but to hear the grumblings and never any praise can grind on many a leader.
This is not always the case, but it is regular enough to mention. There can be plenty of reasons, but primarily it is to maintain the balance between comradery and positional authority. While we may joke around at dinner after a long meeting, or share time at a beach during a reward trip, there is rarely the personal connection that might be gained by regularly associated with one’s peers.
This is on purpose though. While it limits our inter-personal relationships, it is important to have those defined boundaries so that accountability can be maintained when necessary. Rare is the leader who is considered a friend of their subordinates yet still can hold them accountable. That level of leadership will be reviewed in a later article.
I can remember situations where I received a promotion within the organization and although I didn’t act or do anything different, some on my original team felt I was unapproachable due to my new position. Through no fault of mine, they had measured me as too distant to relate or be interested in what was going on in their lives. This was even worse when a promotion put me in a supervisory position over former peers. Both the leader and the follower need to work hard and breaking down anticipated (though not realized) barriers.
There is also a perception of “the boss” that always makes approachability difficult. There are numerous articles on employee engagement, the realities of an open-door policy, etc. On top of all of this, there is always a risk that the associate will feel you are unapproachable because of your title plus their past experiences with other leaders…regardless of anything you do or do not do. People can be intimidated by title, positions, or anything they feel are greater than themselves even when those things may not, in reality, be true.
Leadership is lonely. Those late nights where you are putting the finishing touches on your material for a development meeting; those early mornings where you can’t sleep and you find yourself cleaning your office as you dread a soon-to-come conversation with an associate you need to let go; those times where the organization you represent rolls out an initiative that you believe will negatively impact your team, but you are the leader and can’t stray from the company agenda.
It will be
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