The loneliness of the leader (and what you can do about it)

Podcast transcript:

In my executive coaching and leadership development work, there is often an unspoken anxiety in the room coming from leaders. This happens, in particular, when someone moves into a new leadership role where they are outside their core area of expertise, or their context shifts significantly.

Sometimes though, it happens by stealth…as a leader, you may well be surrounded by familiar people and surroundings but unless you pay close attention to your environment, to your sources of feedback and support, to the changing requirements of your role, you might experience a creeping anxiety that…somehow…you’re on your own.

I was speaking to a colleague recently who was recalling their retail career and the dawning realisation they had, when they first took on a branch manager role, and walked into ‘their’ store, that the slight scruffiness and the people issues they discovered on arrival were now their issues and their issues alone. And that the responsibility for fixing those issues started and ended with them. Noone else.  They were on their own.

Stepping into a leadership position is one of the most challenging career transitions you can make. In doing so, you are accepting a move away from the relative comfort of your area of expertise, the knowledge and experience that probably got you the leadership role in the first place. And into a new world of people management, new process, the need to influence, manage relationships, of peer collaboration, and communicating effectively with new audiences. You are rarely given a heads up as to what this will look like and how it will feel and in most organisations, it’s still the case that most people aren’t given the training and development support they need to get off to a strong start. So you kind of muddle through, maybe regretting that you decided to make this move in the first place, learning by default rather than by design how to lead and manage a team. And if you’re fortunate, you find out for yourself how to make a success of your leadership role and, de facto, your new career path.

And when you move from first line leadership into strategic leadership, this potentially isolating experience doubles down again. Often, leaders anticipating this move will feel like they won’t have enough, or indeed anything much at all, to do in their new role. They’ll be asking themselves questions like ‘what even is giving strategic input’ or ‘setting a vision’ or ‘building effective external partnerships’ or whatever else it is that the strategic leadership role description requires of them. Little do they know that their days will be filled with ever higher stakes decisions, more political navigation and a greater need for effective influencing than ever before.  And even with all the buzz and noise and activity, they may feel more alone than ever. BTW, there’s more on the specific challenges of strategic leadership in my podcast, ‘Four truths about strategic leadership’ at Season 11, episode 1.

So then, if becoming a leader can lead to a sense of loneliness, and continuing on your leadership journey can get more and more isolating, what are the risks of that, and what are the solutions that have worked for other leaders?

Here is my four-step guide to dealing with leadership loneliness…

  1. Feeling like an imposter

It is so common for new leaders or for new strategic leaders to feel that they don’t have the skills or the knowledge to be effective in their new role, that they don’t justify their shiny new compensation package, that they will be ‘found out’ any minute when someone taps them on the shoulder and asks them to go back to their usual place in the hierarchy. In short, they feel like an imposter.

Thing is, in many ways when you come into a new role, you ARE an imposter. You’re faking it till you make it. You’re learning to do the new job while you’re getting paid on the basis that you already know how to do the job. That does sound quite imposter-like. Like you’re not the real deal but instead, you’re playing at it. Thing is though, noone’s going to come knocking at your door telling you they made a mistake. That’s because the organisation knows this, they know that you need to learn your leadership craft and navigate your way into your new role. And they don’t think you’re an imposter. They picked you in good faith and based on good evidence.

But what can you do to stave off your own imposter feelings? My advice is to take your strengths with you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, you know that you can rely on your personal character strengths for energy, for motivation and for inspiration. You’ll need to think about and plan how to best use them in your new context, and you’ll need strategies to manage your overdrive risks but there is no question in my mind how valuable your strengths are to you, and to others, when you’re in an uncertain context such as a new role or leadership position.

Take Phil, for example. For years, they’d been using their Enthusiasm, Empathy and Leading strengths to run projects. To get the project team excited about the journey ahead, to understand their concerns and to lead the way, following the plan to get the project delivered to time and budget. Moving into a leadership role meant a rethink of these strengths was in order. Now, Phil needed to develop a clear vision for their team in order to deliver on the team objectives, to communicate their vision consistently and convincingly, and to understand each member of their team at a deeper level to help them bring their best selves to the role. Same strengths, different use case.

And Jen. Landing in a new leadership role with a supercharged Efficiency strength that had always got the job done in the past. Only now, the role needed a ‘step back and observe’ first 90 days to understand where the team was at and what plan was now going to be needed to get the team objectives met. Step in a strengths in overdrive mitigation strategy of Strategic mindedness and Emotional control, to avoid Efficiency going into overdrive too soon. These other strengths helped them to take a pause, take a back seat and observe what was going on process- and people-wise before moving into the planning phase. So tip 1 is to bring your strengths with you to bring yourself energy, confidence and the best chance of a strong start.

  1. Not knowing what success looks like or how you’re doing

Leaders in new roles often complain that nobody has been clear with them on exactly what expectations they have. This is so different from early career conversations with colleagues in your team and with your line manager, where people are really clear on what they need from you and people are only too happy to give their thoughts on ‘how’ you should do the role too, as ‘what’ they require from the role.

As a leader, there seems to be an implicit expectation that you will just ‘know’ what’s needed because you’re a leader. Errrr, why? So, to plug this information gap, what can you do? Go and ask your key stakeholders – ‘What would success look like for you in working with my team? And with me?’, ‘What have you learned from past experiences works and does not?’. Ask each member of your team ‘How do you best like to be managed? What do you need in your role in order to thrive and even to overdeliver?’ And a special mention for your boss – you really do need to know what their expectations are for what success will look like for your role in your first 12 months (or sooner if that’s their expectation). And if they’re not clear enough for you, you’ll need to discuss it until you both are. And that you’re also happy that you can deliver on what’s expected. BTW, make it all as measurable as possible so that you can track progress.

Once you have clarity on your objectives and on others’ expectations, you’re in a strong position to seek feedback on your progress against these objectives. Two ways: 1. Check ins with key stakeholders on a regular or ad hoc basis to explicitly ask for feedback on how you’re tracking. 2. Getting 360 degree feedback on how you’re collaborating and communicating with peers, how you’re delivering to your role objectives and targets and how you’re managing and leading your team.  But please please don’t wait until your annual appraisal to find out what you were supposed to be doing and/or that you haven’t met the expectations that you weren’t told about when you started in the role. Trust me, it’s on you to find out.

BTW, feedback isn’t always easy to hear so for some inspo and input on that, take a listen to my podcast ‘How to deal with tough feedback’ at Season 10, episode 1.

  1. Not feeling confident in your decisions

When you have a feeling that you should be the one making the tough decisions, that you’re expected to know how best to solve knotty problems because you’re in the leadership hot seat, it can be tempting to take it all on yourself and to try and do it all alone. But that risks alienating others who should be part of the decision-making process because they have valid and valuable views. And without including them, you won’t have their full support because they’ll feel the decision was taken without them.  And even when you get past that challenge and involve members of your team in a decision making process, you may still suffer from groupthink – the idea of coalescing around a decision because there is insufficient diversity of thought in the room, or because people don’t feel safe enough to voice challenging views.

So what can you do? First, think wider on including others’ views but don’t necessarily seek consensus, it’s dangerous (due to the risk of groupthink) and unlikely. Aim instead for a majority accepted outcome and ask for support. Ultimately, you’ll be the one responsible for carrying decisions and you need to be comfortable with that, but it will help to have people with you.

Secondly, make sure that you get enough diverse thinking from different perspectives, on the challenge, solution and decision. Strengths are a great method for achieving that. Getting Strategic mindedness, Detail orientation, Common sense, Critical thinking and Creativity (that is, all the Thinking strengths) in the room will give you a good chance of accessing diverse and complementary thinking styles. But make sure that different sets of experience and background are represented in the room too, or you may miss something critical.

There’s more on this in my podcast at Season 10, episode 5, ‘Diversity of thought for leadership teams’.

  1. Not feeling supported

The loneliness of the leader is real. And you can go a long way to reducing it by making sure your support network is strong enough.  Don’t just rely on your line manager for support, that way lies risk, although of course it’s important to have the support of your line manager.

But beyond your manager, if you have people in your support group who can coach you, mentor you, think collaboratively with you, support and advocate for you, and listen with understanding when you just need to rant, let off steam or download, then you’re going to be in much better shape than thinking you can do it all alone.

I talk about the risks of solo leadership in my podcast at Season 3, episode 1, ‘The myth of the strong leader’. Give that a listen if that sounds like it might be you.  And get your support network in good order by getting some tips from my podcast ‘Building out your support network’ at Season 8, episode 4.

Conclusion – it can get lonely being a leader, but it doesn’t have to

There are several ways you can avoid the loneliness of the leader. All of them require you to actually DO something, but none of them are rocket science. You’ll need build new habits and potentially to think differently about the way you deliver your role compared to previous experiences. But as they say ‘what’s got you here won’t necessarily get you there.’ Leadership does require a new perspective and space to consider how you can change up your approach. So take the time, consider the options and make sure you’re giving yourself the best chance. It is on you. Till next time, stay strong. But don’t fall into the trap of trying to be the ‘strong’ leader.