How To Combat Lonely Leader Syndrome
Written by: Julie Williamson, PhD
Estimated reading time: 3:00 minutes
My company has worked with thousands of leaders in all sorts of industries, functions, and levels, and it is striking to me how often we talk to leaders who are lonely in their roles. They feel isolated from authentic connection with their direct reports, removed from their peers by organizational constraints, and uncertain of their relationships with the people they report to.
My company has worked with thousands of leaders in all sorts of industries, functions and levels, and it is striking to me how often we talk to leaders who are lonely in their roles.
They feel isolated from authentic connection with their direct reports, removed from their peers by organizational constraints, and uncertain of their relationships with the people they report to. These leaders are often surrounded by people virtually or in real life, thanks to back-to-back meetings that fill up their days. But they lack a sense of connection, camaraderie, and support because of deeply held mindsets about what it means to be a leader.
Some of these beliefs include:
- I have to set myself apart to appear impartial and objective.
- No one can understand the pressure I feel, and I have to bear that alone.
- I have to protect my team from failure or from experiencing hard things.
- I can’t share my challenges as a leader because people will think I’m complaining—or worse—that I don’t belong in the role if I can’t handle it.
- If I connect and collaborate with others, I’ll lose my right to make a unilateral decision.
- I don’t have time to slow down and connect on a human level; I’m too busy managing all the things my team needs to deliver.
Perhaps the most persistent belief is simply that being lonely is part of the job. While it is true that being the singular decision maker for tough choices can be part of the job, that doesn’t have to drive pervasive and consistent loneliness day to day.
I’ve had the opportunity to see first-hand how working to create alignment across leadership teams opens channels to support authentic connections and to establish built-in networks for leaders to experience their roles differently.
Well-aligned teams consistently:
- Have rich and productive conversations while still respecting decision rights.
- Make the space for human connections without compromising roles and responsibilities.
- Move quickly to action on ambitious goals and objectives.
- Support peers and colleagues in doing hard things.
- Have some fun together while getting things done.
The connections needed for alignment can feel precarious at first. Often, in our early meetings with leadership teams, we see group dynamics that hold back connection. Some of these signs are obvious—avoiding eye contact, keeping conversations surface level, nodding along without engaging or routines that govern who contributes when and how they do that. Meetings are rote, full of circular conversations where the same decisions are made over and over with little progress. We hear that people “really like each other,” and they don’t engage in deep dialogue because they “respect each other’s lanes.” Leaders are stuck in embedded behaviors, mindsets, and group dynamics that leave them isolated from each other when they most need connection and meaningful discussions.
If you’d like to break the lonely leader syndrome and develop more authentic connections with your colleagues, the tools of aligned teams can help. Try these three ideas to challenge the status quo and build deeper connections to build momentum and accelerate results.
1. Notice what is happening in your routine meetings. Can you relate to any of the signs above that indicate there’s a lack of connection? If so, it may be time to shake up the agenda, call out specific behaviors, or lean into participating differently.
2. Challenge yourself to reach out to a peer in a different department to learn more about what they are doing and how it intersects with what you do. Ask: What are your top priorities? What’s slowing your team down currently? What are you excited about? See if they have any successful practices they can share with you to help with one of your pain points.
3. Resolve to hold yourself to a new standard for connecting and energizing conversations. If you model the way, others will likely follow.