In previous phases of my career, I believed that if I held the most senior role in a department, business unit or organisation it was my responsibility alone to think of ‘everything’, devise ‘the plan’ and ensure it got actioned. This was exhausting, non-inclusive and disconnecting for my colleagues; most likely, for our clients and other constituents as well.
When a particular business unit I led rapidly started to scale, many of the customary processes and delegations quickly became strained and even redundant. I knew little about scale and was employing hope as my strategy! There was a swift and alarming fallout in the staff morale, our service delivery and my confidence. Despite being surrounded by colleagues and clients all day, working unhealthily long hours, (because I thought that was the ‘right thing to do’ and wore it as a badge of honour), I was desperately lonely. Although I believed the contrary, I was in fact alienating my colleagues and others who actually wanted to support me and be included in creating a thriving organisation.
Once the situation had gone far beyond unbearable for all of us, my esteemed colleagues bravely brought to my attention the source of our challenge. It was me. By mistakenly trying to do ‘it all’ by myself, I was not including my colleagues in innovation, decision-making, prototyping and review. The result was a collective exhaustion and the resentment that this manifest. My colleagues were exhausted from my incessant salvos of new ideas and plans that they had to execute because I said so. There is no fun in only being able to execute someone else’s ideas, especially for people who have the smarts and drive to be active contributors to the vision and its execution.
Furthermore through their brave feedback I learnt that, although I had my plans all mapped out in my head, my colleagues’ experience of what I thought was a coherent plan was a scattergun approach that lacked a transparent and inclusive flow. The result was that my colleagues could not achieve any uplifting level of mastery of the current deliverables before I would ‘slap’ them with the next and the next and the next task. I didn’t realise the long-term value at the time of my colleagues’ voicing their frustration. It helped me to understand the importance and impact on them of my management practice, and gradually to improve my leadership identity. As Oscar Wilde noted, “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”
There is no harm in copying others as we learn and grow; we do it every day. Before I knew better, I used to copy the (rather destructive and draconian) leadership styles of others I had witnessed, by trying to ‘knock colleagues into line.’ This of course sent the morale and my wellbeing further down the rabbit hole. I lost the trust of my Team. There was a continual challenge of hierarchy. It probably hamstrung truth-telling and candour if subordinates feared being deemed insubordinate with consequent retribution.
So what has this all got to do with loneliness in leadership?
I used to assume that the old saying ‘It is lonely at the top‘ must be true, and so I made it true. That was exhausting, terrifying and horrid. Once I set about changing it, I discovered it wasn’t actually that difficult!
Self-reflection revealed that I was ‘ring-fencing’ myself from my colleagues up and down the hierarchy. I set about recalibrating my approach to include colleagues across the entire organisation for their opinions and foresight. I stopped hubristically believing that I have to be the smartest and always know everything. Now I also create a Leadership Team of my direct reports with the key agreement of no secrets. This principle is built upon the rationale that, if we trust each other implicitly, then we can achieve anything we apply our minds to. It also provides the forum and culture to practice, be vulnerable, and always be willing to learn from our mistakes. Also, I now encourage everyone to voice their smartest ideas and assist them to realise their implementation. It is far more fun, engaging and effective for all concerned. And, my stress and frustration levels are a fraction of what they used to be.
In summary, my experience has taught me that loneliness in leadership is largely a self-imposed experience that many leaders blame on their job. Everyone I have worked with over the past 25 years wants to contribute to the success of an organisation, regardless of their role and strata within the hierarchy. My colleagues want to help and support the purpose and mission! Equally, most people want to contribute to innovation, decision-making and success, and not simply execute ‘the boss’s’ ideas every day. My message from my personal experience as a leader is that, when we support the ‘best idea’, regardless of the hierarchy of its proposer, all members of the Team experience less loneliness and far more collaboration, trust and enjoyment in our specific contributions to the desired outcome. We are then a unified organism as powerful and dynamic as the huge sum of our diverse perspectives, talents and world views.
As there is as much followership in leadership, let us also remain mindful of how we can support our leaders by asking them, ‘How are you doing?’, How can I help?’ etc. Regardless of seniority and perceived success, we all need affirmation, check-ins and humanness.