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Loneliness in Leadership

Being the boss is fine… or probably not so. As a general rule, you earn more money, make the decisions you want and do not depend on others. But, at the other end of the scale- the exercise of power, generally, carries the heavy burden of loneliness. What can you do to avoid it?

If you are not ready to come to terms with loneliness, then you better get another job, in which other people make decisions for you. When you take on the challenge of creating or directing a company, you know perfectly well what the position entails,” states Mª Angeles Tejada, CEO at Select Group, a temporary employment company.

In her opinion, that ‘loneliness in power’ is very much related to the responsibility undertaken: “Ultimately, managing means making decisions. People are afraid of making mistakes, failing or being rejected; everything is fine as long as you are not committed to something, but as soon as you express your opinion you are a prisoner of your own words. This is the main reason why young people have a hard time calling the shots and taking risks.

“Loneliness in Leadership”  is a fact,  so you rather tackle it sooner than later. And it becomes present in many different scenarios and situations, some  are  memorable –  and can be overcome with more or less difficulty –  others can become mayor problems if they are not handled with great skill and in due time. How many leaders can say they have not felt ousted or ignored when approaching, for example, the coffee machine, and subordinates lower the tone of their voice or change the topic of their conversation? Or when making decisions that may affect employees, hasn’t felt they were carrying a huge burden on their backs? Or has felt compelled to put personal concerns aside, avoid revealing potential weaknesses that makes one look vulnerable in the eyes of others. Or when questioning whether it is convenient or not to have friends within the team they lead. Or when…These are only some of the many assumptions we analyze throughout this article. And with the cooperation of several experts consulted, we suggest how to avoid and address situations in order to mitigate or suppress permanently any concern on loneliness.

1. Distrust

A good leader must inspire confidence, but also needs to know when to keep proper distance. Therefore, one of the main symptoms in leader’s loneliness is the mistrust it may generate in some employees. Miguel Bonet, advisor at Select, explains this with an anecdote: “One of my friends that worked in a furniture company would tell me, ever since he had been promoted to manager, no one ever asked him to join them for a smoking break.

Suggestion: Jose Manuel Casado, Talent & Organization Performance and Partner at Accenture, believes there are many privileges in being a leader, and many responsibilities as well. One of them is the need to earn the trust of those working for you. “This is essential in order to accomplish a real commitment towards what your employees do”. However, Bonet aims at a sometimes insurmountable barrier:  the widespread belief that “a boss is never in a position of equality towards others; the subordinates always set distance with the decision maker.

For example, we unconsciously believe we can’t become close to whom decides on our salary or income. This is inevitable, but we must avoid an excessive distance between the leader and the employees.” What’s the answer to this? According to Tejada, if in spite everything you cannot transmit an acceptable level of confidence, you can compensate for this loneliness with a rich emotional and personal life.

 2. Isolation

This is one of the other core symptoms of loneliness in leadership. Many easily recognizable situations arise on a day to day basis. For example, when you summon a meeting and the participating employees sit at a distance or avoid sitting next to you. Yo may also notice this attitude or sensation when running into your employees, for example, at the coffee machine or other common areas, and as you go by they become silent or swap the topic of there conversation, or you are even left aside.

Suggestion: Miquel Bonet advises managers to try not to isolate from their employees and, mainly, from their close working team: “If you do so, you will prevent them from getting to know you, and no one enthusiastically endorses someone they do not know”.

Anyway, Jose Manuel Casado highlights the fact that many leaders might feel isolated on several occasions, but points out that this only applies to bad leaders: “Those who on a daily basis like to underscore the fact that THEY are the authority within the company or correspond.

José Manuel Casado wishes to remind this type of leaders a quote from the Italian Niccolo Machiavelli: “You do not need to be a genius to accomplish great things. You must not be above men but among them”.

3. Friendless

Some friendships are broken when someone is promoted and turns into his friends’ boss. Other times, when someone becomes a close friend of the boss. Is it convenient to have friends within the company? Some experts state that leaders usually do not have friends. Sometimes, getting along too well with an employee leads to misconceptions.

Suggestion: Some experts argue that the company is not a place to make friends, but also agree that not getting on with the boss serves no purpose. Tejada explains: “You must know your employees and interest in their lives and not expect them to approach you”. According to Casado, leaders as all human beings, need and must have friends, feel loved and appreciated.

“However, it is preferable they are not within the company. Making decisions is generally an emotional process, but proves to be more rational when there are no feelings involved”.

This expert states there is a positive side in getting along with people within the company, but hesitates when it comes to friendship,  ” unless they are colleagues or at peers”.

4. The dilemma of decision-making

When changes affect people, there is no doubt that decisions are harder to take Bonet remembers when a top executive and businessman once confessed that nothing ever made him feel as lonely as the time when he had to fire someone who had worked for him for a number of years. “Even if you are right, you feel miserable, a kind of executioner”. According to Bonet this is the authentic loneliness

Suggestion: If all decisions managers take need too be thoughtful, those affecting people should be even more thoughtful. According to Tejada, values are a person’s most important assets. For this reason, “Your actions must reflect your values”. I recommend you make a daily mental assessment of the decisions you have made. Casado also advises, before deciding; gather sufficient information to guarantee you decide on the best alternative”.

 5. Resistance to change

Uncertainty in the face of changes makes most people rather keep things just as they are at all times. For this reason, most managers find themselves lonely when they need to introduce structural, organizational or any other kind of business changes.

Suggestion: Most people don’t like changes, because we get used to situations where we feel in relative comfort It’s necessary to listen to everyone, as Tejada advises, and explain the need and the benefits resulting from change, even though the last word on the decision is the sole responsibility of the leader. Casado explains that resistance to change is inherent to mankind: “In the face of changes, even if they are positive changes, there is always a certain degree of resistance generated by a feeling of insecurity”.

 6. I need to get it of my chest and I can’t

We need to vent every now and then. For example, when professional life collides with personal life or when we are overwhelmed by problems that need to be resolved (some colleagues believe leaders don’t have personal issues) Some leaders find it difficult to show their outrage or the burden they carry, because they are concerned about exposing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Suggestion: Tejada considers we should not be prisoners of rage, weakness or frailties. He advises “Do not complain, especially not in front of your subordinates”. In addition, he advises you surround  with ‘positive’ people and participate in circles of people that hold similar responsibilities, in order to understand how they face their problems and feel stimulated by their stories.

Casado ensures we all need a safe haven, the higher the pressure the more we need it. Each leader must find some kind of entertainment that allows him to forget, from time to time, his concerns. “This exercise is necessary for an adequate mental health. Each person must find their own”

 7. The leader who knew too much

The impossibility to share certain information with other employees may be understood, to some extent,  as a lack of understanding, and therefore leads to loneliness. Often enough the members of the board of directors ask themselves why the president made a certain decision when all the reports and opinions indicated otherwise. Possibly, the president had access to information the other members had no knowledge of. Sometimes, the boss is compelled to adopt a decision based on information that only he or a few others have access to.

Suggestion: In these cases, Tejada advises that before accepting suggestions from your employees, it is best to know the answer to certain problems that they might introduce. On the other hand, Casado highly recommends leaders to flee from what we know as “paralysis by analysis”: “Trying to have all, absolutely all the information, is not only inefficient but impossible”. In his opinion, understating the decision making process is a matter that would benefit all leaders.

 8. Leaders are always criticized

Some times for having taken certain decisions, others for not adopting them and others due to the consequences of their decisions. According to experts, when one takes the right decision, or just gets things done the right way, “being acknowledged by your employees is rare. If yo get things done the right way, its how it had to be done and it’s usually considered the teams accomplishment. And if it turns out wrong, its your problem, because the rest of the team was following your orders”.

Suggestion: According to Casado, leaders should pay attention to objective critiques, because only these can lead to improvement. “Many leaders, believing in their own divinity, mistakenly consider they own the one and only truth and do not accept any other interpretation of the facts”. This expert emphasizes that many leaders are obsessed in trying to control everything that surrounds them, “and seem to be the only ones who know the truth, their truth. And when a co-worker offers his contribution or dares to correct them, they do not hear what they are being told, but what they want to hear”.

On the other hand, Tejada advises leaders not to isolate when facing criticisms. “It is important to keep in mind that leaders are often criticized”, so they need to come to terms with certain situations and not give them more significance than necessary.

 9. Sense of risk

Leadership is achieved, fundamentally, with attitude and learning from experience. However, experience comes from making mistakes. If you never make mistakes, it’s because you are not taking risks. But sometimes, one feels very lonely when taking too many risks.

Suggestion: According to Bonet, it is easy to say mistakes are part of success, because they inspire innovation, create opportunities and provide opportunities to learn. “But the responsibility you feel when taking decisions or the sense of guilt, concerns only the bearer”. For this reason, leaders must know how to get along with loneliness. Tejada states ” if you are not willing to take risks, you are not worthy of being a leader”.

In order to minimize mistakes, experts advise that “when making difficult decisions, try to sleep well the night before, and to solve any problem, observe from a distance and do so alone”. Casado claims that taking controlled risks is an essential task for any executive. “Only by risking a little can you innovate and change things. Conservative decisions, as its names suggests, conserves, and those that are a little more risky, transform and change the status quo”.

10. Stimulate initiative

Creativity and initiative are not always available at our convenience. When something unexpected happens, something that is not within regular procedures, “you notice that everyone looks at you and no one speaks out, no one offers ideas, unless you ask someone directly”. This lack of initiative is usually because everyone always expects the boss to provide ideas and make decisions.

Suggestion: Tejada suggests we surround ourselves at work by an autonomous and independent team. In this way, they will have a greater ability to act and take leading roles. On the other hand, Casado suggests that “if we want our collaborators to take initiatives, we must encourage them to participate, seek for forums and create procedures that promote they come up with ideas of their own, and more importantly, tolerate mistakes”.

This expert assures that “if you do it this way and establish an acknowledgment system, this problem will not exist”.

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