let in loneliness

January 17, 2020

Leadership and loneliness are inextricably intertwined, but that’s not always a bad thing. Enterprising leaders should embrace their isolation and view it as a source of inner strength, as well as an opportunity to elevate their personal and professional growth.

Leadership and loneliness are two sides of the same coin. Loneliness is an accepted part of leadership. It cannot be avoided. Leaders need to learn to deal with it, first by accepting that they will be excluded from their employees’ activities and second by embracing advice from trusted peers and mentors. Loneliness should be seen as an opportunity for personal and professional growth, not an obstacle to be overcome.

Former US President Barack Obama famously said, “… nothing truly prepares you for the demands of the Oval Office, until you’ve sat at that desk, you don’t know what it’s like to manage a global crisis or send young people to war.” These are the words of the perceptively loneliest leader in the world!  At the same event, the accompanying video tribute to Obama’s presidency, as summarized by Quinta Jurecic, highlights that the presidency is a difficult and lonely burden to bear and requires a particular strength of will and character in order to bear it adequately.1 Leadership and loneliness got conclusively associated when The New York Times published a now-famous photograph (by George Tames) of former US President John F Kennedy leaning over his desk in the Oval Office to read newspapers. The president did so because he had some orthopedic issues, but the loneliness in his body language was there for all to see, according to the late photographer. The New York Times titled the photograph ‘Lonely at the top’. Loneliness is not easily seen by the external world but experienced by the individual. Body language is a big giveaway at times. Almost every leader is lonely in his role; it is the intensity of loneliness that varies. Leader isolation starts particularly when a leader makes rational decisions and not necessarily populist ones. This is the beginning of loneliness in leadership.

Leadership and loneliness are two sides of the same coin. Loneliness is an accepted part of leadership. It cannot be avoided. Leaders need to pick signals of loneliness as early as they can and learn to deal with it. A people’s leader should be participative and expressive but compartmentalized within. A good leader divides elements of leadership into four estates. The first estate is conviction. The second estate is vision and fair play. The third estate belongs to care, compassion, and direction. The fourth estate in leadership is where loneliness kicks in, as its occupants are confidentiality, an organization-first approach and decision making.

K Shankar is Chief Executive Officer of Feedback Business Consulting.

Clinical isolation begins as soon as a leader breaks out of the pack. Workgroups that were integral to the leader’s activities begin to maintain an insulated distance, not by design, but out of ‘overexposure’ fear. The leader does not get considered for out-of-office fun activities, discussions that do not involve work content, etc. The leader is deftly disliked for some decisions that he makes in the interest of the company or at the behest of its board. One-time colleagues-in-arms hesitate to share ‘space’ with the leader because they do not intend to be ‘approving’ of the leader’s actions. The very same colleagues who partied with the leader hesitate to eat at the same dinner table with the leader offsite. Communications of every kind reduce to the bare minimum. The casual message forwards stop abruptly and responses to general messages go unanswered. These signals suggest that isolation has well and truly set in. Loneliness is a common occurrence for leaders, and it is best played to advantage.

accept the opportunity to be lonely

I went to see a very dear friend of mine who was then Chairman of a large conglomerate. During our chat, my phone let out 4 to 5 alerts. My friend asked, “Why don’t you enjoy your solitude and get out of pointless WhatsApp groups? You can’t effectively think as a CEO unless you don’t become productively lonely.” Loneliness needs to be accepted first and then treated as an opportunity. There is nothing poignant about leadership loneliness. Loneliness provides for time to oneself. Leaders should enjoy the new space that gets created. In the silo of loneliness, an individual can transform from being a ‘generic thinker’ to an ‘original thinker’. The new space will help leaders become multi-dimensional managers. The breakout allows for paradigms of a different kind. The opportunity that loneliness provides should be used to build a personal stature that benefits the organization without driving conflicts within the hierarchy. Loneliness allows for a leader to prepare a rational defense for the decisions made rather than a spur-of-the-moment defense of the decision on a continuous basis. Leaders should create space for constructive dissent. Many individuals confuse leadership loneliness to isolation. It is not. A good leader is never isolated in loneliness. They use the opportunity to think about the future generation of leaders, creating mutually enriching bonds and a sustainable ecosystem for them. Steve Waugh, one of Australia’s most successful cricket captains, opines, “there is nothing called pressure, everything is a situation which needs to be dealt with”.2 The same can be said about loneliness. It has more to do with the situation and it is for the leader to convert it into a decisive opportunity.

Loneliness needs to be accepted first and then treated as an opportunity. There is nothing poignant about leadership loneliness. Loneliness provides for time to oneself. Leaders should enjoy the new space that gets created.

unleash the power of diverse interests—the external world is a continuous tutor

Sports, art, reading, economics, food, well-being, theatre, teaching, etc, are great ways of connecting with like-minded individuals outside the organization; provided they are not from your school or college groups. As individuals grow, their choices and preferences change. Diverse interests help cross-pollinate thoughts and allow leaders to learn a variety of subjects, particularly from behavioral perspective. There are lots of ways to get connected—join a club, get on a sports team, take up a new sport and learn it with serious set goals, volunteer at a charity, start a hobby, and many more. Each of these will bring in different perspectives to life and leadership, and help in dealing with loneliness. It is imperative to have colleagues as friends, but it is even more critical to have a large set of friends outside the organization who bring in unabashed yet different perspectives. There is no end to the ways to get connected socially with others, all it takes is a little initiative and interest. As experiences with people outside the work environment broaden, a leader will have more interesting things to say and live with.

It is imperative to have colleagues as friends, but it is even more critical to have a large set of friends outside the organization who bring in unabashed yet different perspectives.

books and reading—most understated and most effective

A leader is as good or bad as his knowledge and tactical acumen. Staying updated with books that bring about recency in thinking and link with the past is a great way to stay ahead of loneliness. When a leader cracks open a book or continuously updates, the listening process starts. When knowledge is shared, conversations start and acceptability into networks improves. This is a big release to loneliness. Gabriel García Márquez, the famous Mexican author, had these famous words to say: “The world must be all messed up, when men travel first class and literature goes as freight”. The importance of reading and its ability to stimulate and allow for discourse could not have been captured better. Great leaders are always on top of their reading and that helps them stay productively lonely!

trusted advisors make a difference

Advisors can be executives who have traveled a similar journey, select childhood friends who understand the challenges, some of the company’s board members, and like-minded friends who can be trusted explicitly. The important part is to find people whose professional and personal opinions can be trusted and with whom one can talk openly. With advisors, the communication must be frank and without any inhibitions. Discussions about ideas, worries, and dreams should be conducted freely, knowing that one will get honest feedback and confidentiality will always be uncompromisingly upheld. Advisors always bring a different perspective. One of my advisors is funny bones Mr Manoj Bangdiwala. He helps me laugh at myself, a very important trait. Always choose advisors who are not involved with another person in a similar role. Mentoring is the best way to receive advice. Never bring the office home. It has no place at home. Home is another world and you should enjoy its sanctity.

letting ‘go’ is an art that needs to be mastered

 Teams bond and quickly adapt to new environs. Reporting lines will change, matrices will change but people remain. Even the best leaders don’t necessarily enjoy the full confidence of the entire team. It depends on which side of the decision they fall. It is human. Not everyone will agree with every decision, even if it was made in the interest of the company and designed for successful outcomes. Those that disagree will start whispering. It never feels good to be the reason for whispers. It is, however, important to think of the big picture. Staff need to bond over something, and it could well be the leader. If a leader genuinely loves the team, they let go and learn to laugh over it. Leaders should not allow negativity of any kind around them. They should just stay focused on the criticals.

Loneliness is something an individual prepares for right from the early days. It is essential to cultivate good habits like reading, curiosity in the right areas, playing a sport or two, being socially active, teaching and mentoring youngsters, making friendships across the spectrum, and having an open mind about everything. They come in handy when loneliness kicks in. Loneliness does not come in with leadership. Every individual has to invoke the art of becoming lonely when they desire and re-emerge a better person.

Even the best leaders don’t necessarily enjoy the full confidence of the entire team. It depends on which side of the decision they fall. It is human.

1 https://www.lawfareblog.com/loneliest-job-donald-trump-barack-obama-and-moral-requirements-presidency

2 Steve Waugh, Out of My Comfort Zone: The Autobiography