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Leadership Is Lonely

Gustav Juul

Gustav Juul

Principal Partner

Adizes Institute

I fell asleep yesterday right around 1.15 and was up 6.20. I was annoyed with myself that I again was starting to slip in my effort of the work not to take over and go to bed at a decent time. The morning was chilly. There was almost a winterly feeling in the air even though we are in the middle of June. The weather is kind of strange in the summer here in Mexico City, it is chilly, warm, sunny and we usually get a good rain around 15.00.

I was sitting drinking my first cup of coffee reading an article about “loneliness in leadership” thinking that it is kind of funny how leadership is often glorified. What I guess most people imagine about the life of a leader is that we have an army of people doing all kinds of stuff for us and that we, honest to God, don’t do much else than preside meetings, mingle with other leaders and for the rest of the time just sit and think. Wouldn’t it be lovely if it was so?!?

The article I was reading was titled “It’s Time to Acknowledge CEO Loneliness” written by Thomas J. Saporito and published in the Harvard Business Review. It is a pretty good place to find articles about leadership by the way.

The authors cited survey findings that “half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61% believe it hinders their performance. First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation. Nearly 70% of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.”

Your first reaction may be thinking “poor babies”. Golf courses, mansions and lavish salaries isn’t really what instills empathy. Should we care if billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos aren’t reaching the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? I often wonder in between those moments of exceptional-ism what their lives were like. Were all their moments in between filled with inspiration, passion, and unwavering loyalty to their cause?

For me, I have found that visualization is the key. I come in early because I need the quiet time for reflection, planning, thought, and inspiration. The leadership books talk about it. They discuss making the time to be strategic, to plan for the future. While I agree it has to happen, I also would like to say that this is easier said than done, for when you are actually running a business and not just talking about it, often the time to quietly plan is sporadic at best. Further, running a business requires some “here and now” in the moment thinking. As we all know tomorrow will not come if today’s must do’s are left undone.

Isolation

Today, a Google search for “loneliness in leadership” will return 15,100,000 results. Apparently we are not as alone in our loneliness as we think. Still, I would argue, any leader’s isolation has negative ramifications not just on ourselves, but on others. It is also not only the CEOs who experience this kind of loneliness — it’s our team managers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders too. In fact, anyone who finds themselves peerless can feel isolated. This isn’t good for decision-making, culture, or performance.

Because the leader’s actions reverberate, one person’s isolation becomes a larger problem when it leads to poor decision-making, negativity, fatigue and frustration. And who wants to work for an unhappy person?

Loneliness is not solitude

Loneliness and solitude aren’t the same thing. Solitude is incredibly valuable for busy leaders.

Solitude is about having time to your own thoughts especially to sort out complex situations. Feeling lonely is more of a mindset that can include not feeling understood or accepted. Loneliness is a state of mind; one that isn’t conducive to being your best. Feeling lonely or isolated frequently over long periods of time can have massive impact on health including depression, stress and can lead to poor decision making. Even if that loneliness doesn’t grow, people who are lonely tend to increasingly self-isolate over time. Self isolating means the distance between the leader and the team can grow. It’s hard to communicate and collaborate effectively when there’s a mountain-sized space in between you.

Be it a Managing Director or one of the C-level that is starting to isolate, the Adizes Institute® has simple ways of addressing this situation. This situation should not be ignored.

Some of the reasons we can feel isolated at times are the following:

Does it really matter?

When you’re responsible for leading people you want to do right by them, make decisions that improves their working lives. Growing companies are tough environments. The “right” decision can be highly subjective. This is especially hard if you have perfectionist tendencies. As your quest for the perfect decision continues or you constantly second guess the ones you’ve made, the doubt grows, the pressure starts to multiply. Not sure anyone else will understand, you recede further inside yourself. You begin to self-isolate. Loneliness and even existential doubts can start to takes root.

This happens to many of our clients. They call us (Adizes Institute®) because we are one of the leading experts in Organizational Transformation. What we do is create a plan for where they want to get the company and make the organization through our methodology pull together around it. It is quiet marvelous to watch this happen over the course of a year. We will help you make sense of the complexities of this transition.

Access to information

While many leaders strive to be transparent, there’s often still loads of sensitive and confidential information they can’t share — impending departures, early stage venture capital negotiations, performance issues, legal matters and the like. At times the gap between what leaders know and what the team knows can make it look like the leadership team is making really poor decisions.

During challenging times they know there’s chatter about the leadership team, assessing their decisions, often critically. Sometimes that criticism is harsh and can feel unfair to leaders who are earnestly trying to do right by people. It can make them feel misunderstood, increasing loneliness.

There are basically two solutions, either you develop a really thick skin and recede further into yourself or you develop a system like the that makes not only decision-making but especially implementation much easier. Now it is going to sound like the Adizes Institute® is the solution for all our troubles as leaders, and it is not, but as far as making companies able to take a giant step forward, there are very few methodologies as solid. This is after all what the Adizes Institute® has been doing for the last 50 years. Yes it is our anniversary this year.

New shoes

The shift into leadership isn’t always easy. While most longed for more autonomy, new leaders can be challenged with the parts of this shift related to having more power, both perceived and real.
When someone gets promoted, they never really know how their life is going to change. One suddenly become a “suit”, relationships shift over-night, people don’t trust you anymore, and conversations change. Typically the relationships have to be reborn even with old friends and new support systems have to be created.

Flawless

The official sign on the door of every leader should say: I am infallible, strong, powerful, confident, have all the right answers and know how to deal with every situation. I never lose faith and always believe in myself.

What everyone that is not a leader seems to feel deep down is. Even though these guys don’t have a clue most of the time, they get paid millions. We could just as well flip a coin. That would also be much cheaper.

This doesn’t make for the lines of communications to be open. The leader is expected to be flawless and therefore does not permit himself to ask for help when he needs it, because it would show vulnerability. Even very experienced leaders can fall into this trap. It is the fish that bites its own tail.

Lack of support systems

Sitting at the very top of the pyramid, the leader’s role often means offering support rather than being the recipient of it. They typically have few places where they can get support to work through issues they face. Even most executives have it hard, they report to the busiest person in the company: the CEO. Stretched thin already, the conversations with their boss revolve around critical business matters.

Feeling isolated and lonely can be especially acute in the early days of being a leader. The pressure is rising and they haven’t built support systems yet. Being remote or geographical distance from his peers can increase loneliness.

I have had an international career. From early in my professional life I reported to the CEO and mostly from a remote location with almost complete authority to make decisions. It came naturally to me to find friends to talk to. I knew I ultimately had to take the decision but I never had any problem explaining the situation to them and asking them for their opinion. Most of the times they had many more years of experience than I did and their advice. Most of the times I therefore went with what they said, other times I didn’t, but what I always made sure of is that they understood why I had gone against their recommendation. The result was that even if we might not agree on the decision they understood my reasoning and most of the times worked actively to implement it.

The support system I just described is eerily close to the one that is created through the methodology of the Adizes Institute. This powerful support system can really make a difference. As myself our teams are expertly trained and have an executive career behind them. We create a safe place where you can start to simply be yourself. Our entire job is to offer you support in making your company great.

Are you ready for a talk? Write to me at gustav@adizes.com


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