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Loneliness of Leadership

The loneliness of leadership

“How are you doing in the middle of this?” I asked the first time CEO I was coaching.

“Honestly,” they said as turned to look away from the camera. “I’m struggling.”

Although they seemed to be doing a great job leading their business through the change they were required to make, it was clear that the toll on them was heavy.

“Struggling, how so?” I asked.

“People say that being a CEO is a lonely, but I never quite realised how lonely it really was,” they replied.

Close but Distant

Many years ago, I heard Gareth Jones, author of ‘Why should anyone be led by you?’, say that as a leader you need to have a close but distant relationship with your team.

You need to be close to those you lead so you build connection and camaraderie, but you can never be absolute peers. Why? Because in our organisational constructs where the ‘buck’ must stop somewhere, the role of leader requires that you must perform certain tasks, especially in terms of setting direction and managing performance.

The consequence of this close but distant approach is that for many in leadership roles it can feel lonely. Yes, you have a team around you to open-up to and to ask for support, but ultimately the buck does stop with you for your team, and often there is only so much you can share with you team in any situation.

Show Humility

To overcome the loneliness of leadership, I’ve heard many say that showing vulnerability is the key. Whilst I think there is some merit in this, anyone who has heard me speak knows that I’m not a fan of the over-promoted belief that leaders need to show vulnerability. The reason is because as humans we are just not wired that way; we have a bias toward spotting threats and therefore seeking to show vulnerability can unconsciously feel like we are opening ourselves up to further threat.

To leverage the intent behind this concept, and to help ease the sense of loneliness in leadership, I believe we need to push through the threshold of vulnerability and instead focus on showing humility. In simple terms this involves recognising that…

Vulnerability causes us to say “I don’t know what to do in this situation”.

Where as,

Humility takes this further by saying “I don’t know what to do in this situation, but I’m sure that we can figure it out.”

Through humility we therefore not only create the environment where we are open to support, but we then request that support through holding a belief that we will find a way through our situation.

Enrolling Support

“So how did it go?” I asked the same CEO at our next coaching session.

“Well, I did what we discussed,” they said. “I brought the team together laid out my concerns and where I felt I was struggling, and then we created a plan together.”

Pausing, I waited for them to continue.

“And you know what?” they said, “I think we have created a really great plan that the team are all committed to.”

In the conversation that followed with the CEO, whilst I don’t think their sense of loneliness completely disappeared, it did appear that through showing humility they were able to enrol the support of their team and share out the heavy burden they were carrying.

If you’re seeking support in your leadership role why not contact for a exploratory conversation to understand how you can use the power of humility.