During a recent executive coaching session, my client and I were engaged in a conversation about leadership when he made the following statement;
“I am passionate about leading my staff, but I don’t feel anyone cares or likes me.”
It is true many leaders feel lonely. In fact, one of the most common phrases I hear during coaching sessions is: “it’s lonely at the top.” I disagree with the context of that statement. And so does John Maxwell. In his book, Leadership Gold, John says;
“If you are lonely at the top, then you are doing something wrong.”
As leaders, we spend our days surrounded by people, so the last thing we expect is to feel alone, but many do. Why? I believe the feeling of loneliness is a not a positional issue, but rather one of personality.
Let me take a few words y from John Maxwell’s book, Leadership Gold to explain. In his book, John says; “If you are leading others and you’re lonely, then you’re not doing it right. Think about it. If you’re all alone, that means nobody is following you. And if nobody is following you, you’re not really leading! What kind of a leader would leave everyone behind and take the journey alone”? John Maxwell answers that question with;
“a selfish one.”
As leaders, our job is to make people better. To give them the tools and knowledge to achieve their greatest desires.
However, if you’re feeling lonely, it can lead to many things like; poor decision-making, inept problem-solving, frustration, dysfunctional teams, and angry and frustrated employees. Not to mention the internal stress that builds and eventually causes negative behavior and discord between your spouse or significant other and those within your inner circle. Success is nowhere to be found.
There is no doubt that Colin Powell’s statement; “sometimes leadership means pissing people off” is true. Leaders must hold people responsible and accountable for their actions or lack thereof. This can cause a temporary feeling of isolation or loneliness. Jack and Suzy Welch wrote in a Business Week article: “There’s something about being a boss that incontrovertibly lends itself to isolation. I’ve learned that people dislike people who hold them accountable and will withdraw themselves. I might even say that if you’re feeling some loneliness, you might be on the right track to becoming an effective leader.
I have been there. I know how lonely it can feel. But my loneliness is base on my desire to have friends, to enjoy conversations and laugh and tell jokes. But leaders must remember; we are not here to make friends, but rather build relationships. When we realize our job is to build relationships, create trust and add value, we’ll do everything we can to connect with those we lead and create an atmosphere of coaching and collaboration. When that occurs, your not lonely, your fully engaged!
How do we eliminate the loneliness at the top and get our leadership focus right?
Here are five principles I lead by to eliminate the loneliness of leadership:
- I’m VISIBLE every day. I make a point to talk face to face or through the phone or video chat with EVERY direct report. I also strategically reach out to indirect reports to continue to build those relationships.
- I set clear BOUNDARIES with my team. I lead through a philosophy of Ready, Fire Aim. Meaning I empower my team to identify what needs to be done and go do it! We’ll make it perfect as we progress. However, there are boundaries in regards to people, operational interruptions and costs. When setting boundaries, be careful not to shut yourself off from your team.
- I INVOLVE my team in the vision and strategic plan. I make it a priority to get people involved in the process of decision-making, problem-solving, communication, and training. I make sure everyone has input.
- I spend a large part of my time COACHING my team. I meet with each direct report weekly and conduct one-on-one coaching session where we continue to set, adjust and create goals and objectives, conduct on-going performance reviews and develop a mentoring relationship using character-based coaching to achieve their desired goals.
- I make sure and COLLABORATE with those outside of my direct reports and team. I made it a priority to meet with every department once a month to listen to their concerns and suggestions, as well as to share information.
There is no doubt that being a leader offers extraordinary challenges in connecting, building relationships and creating an atmosphere of trust. However, just because you’re no longer invited to lunch doesn’t mean that you’re a terrible leader. Don’t take it personally. More importantly, accept it, because the more you try to be liked, the more you’ll compromise your role and lose respect from the team. Remember you are not there to create friendships, but rather build relationships.