From a distance, people always marvel at the glamour, glitz and attention that is sometimes accorded to people in influential positions. It seems that leaders unknowingly attract interest and respect that will make people to instinctively give anything to be in the company of the leader they hold in high esteem. Every word spoken, any initiative launched, any social activity..…  or whatever the leader gets him/ herself involved with, becomes a point of reference and in many instances a benchmark to be emulated. There is however a part that is not frequently being spoken about and that is the uncomfortable reality of leadership called loneliness.

A leader needs to appreciate that loneliness is part of the leadership package. If you cannot handle loneliness and love playing to the gallery, stay out of leadership. You are not running a fan club when you are into a serious leadership assignment. Far removed from the glare of spotlights and public attention, many a leader can sometimes feel a sense of intense loneliness. The loneliness comes from the realization of the awesome responsibility that rests upon him/ her in pursuit of a great vision and the potential consequences of every action or inaction. There will come a time when the applause of the crowds fades into deafening silence. You will become even conspiratorial at times about the motives of those close to you and even believing in yourself becomes an arduous assignment. The greater the vision, the greater the likelihood of loneliness because a Godly vision doesn’t happen on a big conference call; it is ultimately a personal assignment between you and the One who gave you the assignment. Too many of us aspire for the glory that goes with the successful completion of a leadership assignment but we don’t want to go through the often challenging story that will bring this about.

David Mc Kenna in his book Never Blink at a Hailstorm describes the following three types of loneliness in leadership which I found quite instructive:

  1. The loneliness of authority: You might experience isolation in exercising authority especially in correcting a wrong that became a norm in your organisation. Some of your closest associates might not necessarily like the status quo to be challenged. They want to be associated with you without any concomitant sense of accountability. If you are not consistent in correcting the wrongs regardless of who is involved, it will undermine your credibility as a leader.
  2. The loneliness of decision making: Leaders sometimes grapple with decisions that can have far-reaching implications. The mere fact of knowing that the buck stops with you, can be quite daunting. The margin of error is very small at the top and one needs to take well calculated decisions; indecisiveness will only worsen the problem.
  3. The loneliness of confidentiality: There are sometimes moral dilemmas that leaders have to deal with where the integrity of the institution, an individual or a family is at stake. Are you going to make a public splash that will send shock waves through the organization or are you going to take the route of rehabilitation, restoration and confidentiality without compromising accountability?

On my leadership journey, I have been challenged on all three fronts on numerous occasions. Sometimes it happened at the peak of executing an exciting vision. Most of the times there were no textbook answers or precedents from which to reference. Sometimes I had to follow my gut feel because some of these decisions cannot be outsourced or postponed indefinitely. There is nothing that undermines a leader more then when your followers sense an element of indecision in your approach. This may lead to a state of paralysis of analysis in the organization. I also had to tap into my reservoir of faith and seek divine guidance. My Creator promised that He will never leave me or forsake me. True to my favorite soccer team Liverpool’s anthem – You never walk alone.

I am sure that in your life as in mine, there were times whilst embarking on a great vision, you also went through moments of uncertainty that engendered a sense of uncomfortable loneliness. This might include severing ties with a long standing business partner because of impropriety, recapitalising a business, confronting a very senior colleague that’s disrupting organisational objectives, serious unforeseen and unavoidable cost escalations where money is in short supply….

Please pardon my English – you’re damned if you do it or you’re damned if you don’t. When you find yourself in such a set of circumstances:

  • Know who you are and what your assignment in life is all about. Never lose sight of the bigger picture.
  • Develop an appropriate mental attitude. As Martin Gover once said “Attitude is 100% under your control; yours to choose, use or lose.”
  • Live today as if it is your last. Forget yesterday’s setbacks and the potential challenges of tomorrow. Embrace today and give it your best shot.
  • Never forget that there are people’s lives that depend on the successful implementation of the vision. They really care about you; you will be surprised that there is more going for you then what is against you.

You know exactly where you stand with a leader that has credibility because they take responsibility for all their actions and the consequences of their decisions. They are the first to own up for their mistakes and make a concerted effort to initiate corrective action to avert a similar set of circumstances.  You might not always get it perfectly right the first time because there might have been unforeseen and unavoidable variables that you did not factor in as you embarked on the implementation of the vision. However, it is the ability to reflect, make the necessary adjustments and move forward, that will keep you on track in the fulfillment of your vision. The journey is more important than the destination. The question is – how hungry are you for it?

You are the custodian of a vision much bigger than yourself. Engage the uncomfortable reality of loneliness, with hope.

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