The Isolated Leader
The number one cause of burnout and bitterness among leaders (1:05)
How a leadership role can separate you from your people and your passion (1:20)
Six characteristics of isolated leaders (4:05)
Three things you can to prevent or remediate leadership isolation (8:30)
If you’re willing to engage, here’s what’s next… (12:20)
The Isolated Leader
Did you know there’s an unacknowledged commonality among leaders? And it is the number one cause of burnout, bitterness, anger, resentment, and sometimes even termination.
It’s something that makes a leader put a countdown to retirement calendar on their wall or dream about opening a winery, a cupcake factory, or retiring to the middle of nowhere. Do you know what it is?
In my interview with Cara Crye, the newest CEO of Farm Supply Company, we talked about managing the isolation that came with becoming CEO of a company she had been with for over 20 years.
Let’s dig into that now by listing the characteristics of isolated leaders, exploring what you can do to prevent or remediate leadership isolation and, if you’re willing to do that work, what happens next.
How a leadership role can separate you from your people and your passion
Isolation is the common thread among leaders who wish they hadn’t gone into leadership. “Why is that?” you might ask.
Well, the higher you move up in an organizational structure – even if it’s one of your own creation – the less time there is to work in your area of passion, purpose, and strength; the more you become the guard dog, watching and protecting against competition, managing the reputation of your organization, thinking about risk management and fiscal accountability; and you also become the keeper of secrets as you hold onto confidential information that enables you to protect your staff, your customers, your business, and the culture within your organization.
There are other contributing factors to isolation which include the scope of your role, the amount of responsibility you carry, the number of staff you oversee, and how visible your organization is to the world or in your community.
But here’s the truth: No matter the work that you’re doing or the size of your organization, the higher you move up in the organization, the fewer people there are who you can talk to about the things that matter most – the decisions that weigh on your heart, the issues that become your lonely burden.
Nearly every leader I’ve worked with since 2011 has begun their journey steeped in passion and purpose, with vim and vigor. But as they move higher and higher within the organizational structure, the amount of time they get to spend in passion and on purpose gets smaller and smaller.
At the same time, the mental energy they must spend on the fiscal and human resources parts of the business – as well as watching out for the good of the whole and trying to predict the future – drains them physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Six characteristics of isolated leaders
Here are some patterns you can look for on your road to leadership—
Isolated leaders hide their concerns. Are you resisting sharing aspects of your work because you worry that it may burden your family or close friends? Great leaders often have supportive spouses and strong family ties, but they don’t always want to burden the people they care about by talking about their work challenges.
Isolated leaders become guarded because of their visibility. They know that people notice what time they arrive at the office, how many hours they walk through their department, how many cocktails they have at the holiday party, where they were last seen having dinner, what kind of car they drive, and whether they remembered someone’s name and what kind of work they do at the organization. Adding to that sense of isolation is the reality that a leader may make a casual comment that is quickly misinterpreted or misconstrued, and then misquoted.
Simply living their lives and participating in casual conversation takes on much bigger meaning for someone in a leadership role. To avoid scrutiny and misreads, they tend to make their world smaller and smaller.
Isolated leaders feel the burden of all their dependents. A leader I’ve worked with repeatedly said, “I’ve got 25 mouths to feed, day in and day out. Every decision I make is going to impact those people’s lives. I cannot let them know when I’m uncertain about which course to take.”
Isolated leaders hide their vulnerability. Outwardly, they begin to act like they know it all, even when, on the inside, they feel uncertainty. They’re less open to hearing new ideas and feedback because it may just be discovered that they don’t have all the answers.
Isolated leaders sometimes get defensive. When they get thrown off balance by uncertainty, they may shut down, a downward spiral that just makes everything worse.
Isolated leaders tend to have an escape route, even if it’s just fantasy. When they become angry, resentful, and drained because they no longer connect to the passion, purpose, and creativity like they once did, isolated leaders begin to talk about selling the company or leaving to start a winery or buying a sailboat to travel around the world. Sometimes they will even jump from the organization they’re running successfully to a different one, hoping that their feelings of isolation will disappear.
But no matter which escape route is planned or imagined, isolated leaders take the very thing with them that causes them to feel most isolated. We’ve all heard that saying, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Leadership is no exception.
Three things you can to prevent or remediate leadership isolation
So how do we prevent or remediate becoming an isolated leader? (And it is far easier to prevent leadership isolation than to remedy it.)
The first thing is to engage in a confidential group of peers which has been developed for the sole purpose of reducing isolation. These groups come in many names and many forms, including mastermind groups, executive roundtables, young presidents’ organizations, and more. Most of these groups have strong guidelines for confidentiality and sharing, and the participants are there because they understand and desire the value of nonjudgmental connections.
The second thing is to check in with your spouse, your partner, or a solid friend about how they feel when you talk about your work. Clarify what’s comfortable for them. Develop some kind of code for “Not now,” and respect it. Share with them what you’re looking for in return. Are you looking for support? Empathy? Do you want solutions, or do you just want an opportunity to process out loud?
Be aware, however, that people who love you and are emotionally connected to you will often struggle with offering you crisp, clear feedback.
Also, find someone who can stand in the fire with you. One of my executive clients said to me, “It’s so helpful to have someone who’s nonjudgmental and has not only walked through the fire themselves but isn’t afraid to stand in the fire next to me.”
The right professional coach is someone who has the experience, training, and skills to listen fully, give appropriate feedback, help you uncover thinking errors, and be completely nonjudgmental as they hear you out.
My clients who struggle with leadership isolation don’t necessarily want to step down or leave; they enjoy guiding and shaping their organization. Most of them are the right leaders in the right place at the right time; they just need coaching to understand that being open and appropriately vulnerable with those who depend on them fosters trust, connection, empathy, loyalty, and empowerment.
If you’re already feeling isolated, all is not lost. Leading while mitigating isolation is simply about being vulnerable, and vulnerability is courage.
If you’re willing to engage, here’s what’s next…
As you work with those helpful strategies, you may feel uncomfortable as you begin to re-engage with others and let down the barriers around the things you believed were important to protect. But remember, discomfort is a natural part of the process and a place from which we most grow and transform.
I’m not suggesting that you don’t buy that new red sports car or take a three-month mini-sabbatical. I’m not even saying don’t move to a new position if that’s what you really want to do.
I am saying that until you take a solid look at the behaviors and assumptions that led you into this isolation, the symptomology you hope to leave behind is probably going to be right there with you wherever you go.
From my own personal experience as an isolated leader, I know that you can discover a form of leadership that allows you to be fully yourself, and to acknowledge and accept a certain level of isolation but also be balanced in connection and relationship.
I also know that you can become a leader who is genuinely humble and powerful – both at the same time. I know that you can become a leader who takes risks and bold steps and acknowledges their vulnerability, and I know that you can be a leader who’s both an expert and a curious, agile learner.
So here’s to a different path of leadership, a path that doesn’t take us to isolation, but instead, helps us build connections, maintain our passion and purpose, and be the type of authentic leader we want to be.