Have you ever been surrounded by people and yet felt terribly alone? You're standing next to someone at a meeting, a social event, or a Sunday morning church service. They know your name, your profession and title, and even some basic personal information. But they don't know you - what you love, what you're afraid of, what you dream about, and what you struggle with. It's not because they don't want to know you. It's because you haven't let your guard down and allowed them the opportunity to know you.
Those who are in leadership often know this feeling very well. In fact, we've accepted it and packaged it into a catchy phrase:
Leadership is lonely.
But does it have to be?
Adjustments of a New Leader
When I first accepted the position of Executive Director, one of my first tasks was to build up a team of leaders to help execute our organization's mission. This included recruiting new board members, advisory committee members, and a key staff member. I was fortunate to sit down with one individual who had years of executive leadership experience at large local church. As we got to know each other, one of the first questions he ask me was this: "how are you handling or plan to handle the loneliness of leadership?" I had an answer, and genuinely thought it was a good one. But I had no clue. And he probably sensed it.
Leadership by definition is isolating and can lead to incredible loneliness.
The last 6-8 months has been a season of adjustment as I've assumed new leadership responsibilities at work. It's involved a mindset change, trying to fully understand how my actions and choices impact others. There are days that I've felt comfortable leading authentically as me. And there are other days that I shuffle through the Rolodex (do those even exist anymore?) of leadership identities, wondering which one will help get the job done. One day it may be a performance-based mask. Another day it may be the classic "I hope they like me" mask. And other days, it could be as simple as "does my fancy new black leather manpurse make me look more professional."
The mask of leadership is heavy, and it is exhausting to wear. Maybe that's why my back has been bothering me lately...
I am still me, but who I am affects in a greater capacity my staff, volunteers, program participants, and community partners. This creates a temptation to cover up mistakes, hide fears, and bury insecurities.
Why is it that when we become leaders, our ability to be vulnerable changes? Is it because hiding behind a title is attractive? Perhaps it's because more responsibilities equals more "people pleasing."
I think one reason is because the burden of responsibility can be so heavy that our existing cracks widen a bit because of the pressure. I usually find this happening when I assume responsibilities that aren't mine to own. And then I try and cover up those cracks with a nice shiny new mask. Perhaps I could try a creepy clown mask to make it even more obvious that I'm hiding...
Strengths Based Leadership
During my MSW program at Wayne State, I took a social work leadership course . For one of my assignments, I had to read the book Strengths Based Leadership. It identifies 34 strengths from the from the book, Strengthsfinder 2.0 and puts them into four leadership style categories:
My primary leadership style is Influence, with top strengths in "Woo, Communication, and Positivity." However, one leadership strength that's not mentioned in this book is vulnerability. Some of the most powerful leadership lessons come when we embrace and learn from our failures and pass along the wisdom we've learned to others. As I've grown, I've learned that I am most effective when I lead from a position of vulnerability, allowing my weaknesses and cracks to show and living authentically as I am and not as I want others to think I am.
The scripture I often reference is 2 Corinthians 12:9 - "My power works best in your weakness." This keeps me humble and dependent on God's grace.
Yet when the titles come and the responsibilities increase, that mask of the "I've got it all together" leader seems awfully attractive.
If the title requires a mask, than it is not a title worth holding.
Pursuing Authentic Leadership
Authentic leadership builds connection. And as author Jon Gordon says, "connection breeds commitment." People understand that as leaders, we are real people with real life challenges. This doesn't mean that a leader should tweet every five minutes about every whimsical thought or feeling. It simply means that as leaders, we become aware of our blind spots.
The only way that leadership becomes lonely is when I allow the responsibilities to change me into someone who I am not and fail to recognize the masks that lead to social and emotional isolation.
So, a strengths based leadership style for me is to live authentically as me - a man with flaws who loves God, lives with passion and purpose, sometimes puts his foot in his mouth, and may/may not have a coffee or mustard stain on his shirt at any given moment.
It means that I use self-awareness to lead from my strengths, be honest about my weaknesses, and empower others to use their strengths to lead in areas I am weak in.
It means that I connect with a supportive community of others who I can share openly with about the challenges I face as a Godly man, husband, and leader. It means finding other leaders to learn from. And it means maintaining the discipline of connecting with God and making time to rest and recharge.
Leadership can be incredibly lonely. But it doesn't have to be. We get to choose.