Over recent years there has been an awful lot of talk around mental health. One of the key facets involved in maintaining good mental health is overcoming this concept of loneliness.
Now when we talk about loneliness, we can think about certain types of people that are more susceptible to the issue of loneliness – normally this would be the elderly or vulnerable people.
We can very often talk about leaders of countries. They have the final say in some major decisions. They have to sign that all-important document that ultimately impacts the citizens of their country and they can end up being in the loneliest place in the world as nobody else shares that burden with them.
Let’s look at our school teachers. Teachers spend all of their time in the classroom, speaking and engaging with our children, but actually it can be a very lonely place because the people they’re engaging with are not at their level. While they’re entertaining these children in order to educate them, eventually they have to sit back and they have to be single-handedly dealing with the work that comes out of it all.
I work and engage with leaders on a daily basis. That is what I do. That’s what my background is, 20 years of leadership in the police service. I’ve headed up several departments. I’ve had to make life-changing decisions, life-altering decisions, life and death decisions.
I’ve had to be woken up at 2:30 in the morning for critical and major incidents that have been going on and I’m the person that has to make those crucial decisions as to what action needs to be taken. I’ve had a full day at work, I’m lying in my bed and then I am suddenly in a position where I have had to make these decisions. Yet, when I go to work, I am surrounded by hundreds of people. One department had nearly 400 people. So I was always surrounded by people but those people weren’t making the decisions I was making. This is true of so many leaders out there today.
When we think about leaders, we automatically think about the well-dressed CEO at the top of their game, at the top of their company. We think about political leaders. But actually, a leader is somebody who has responsibility for other people and responsibility for the influence and the outcome of events. So actually, there are more leaders, more people, who take on this onerous duty of being a leader than we give credit for.
When you are a leader, you are often surrounded by all sorts of people you actually may get on with really well and have established some great connections with your co-workers. But are you really going to share your deepest and darkest secrets with them? Are you going to share your vulnerabilities with them? Are you going to share those doubts that you have about yourself? Because we can quite easily fall into this trap of thinking that anybody who’s a leader, who has got a great wage coming in, a great car, great position, dresses really well, and can make all these decisions, that they are completely and utterly confident in their own abilities. That is not always the case.
That is not always the case because they are still human beings. I remember I was very good at what I did because I’d had years and years of experience in what I did, but yet I still lacked that level of confidence in myself as a human being. I still doubted myself at times.
Even as a coach where I’m coaching people from around the world, I am constantly thinking to myself, “Am I good enough?” You start getting this imposter syndrome kicking in. So we all have vulnerabilities as human beings and consequently it’s no surprise, therefore, that leaders can also feel very, very lonely.
At the end of the day, while you may have your co-workers around you, while you may have your teams around you, while ever you may have your peers around you, it can seem very lonely because to express your weakness, express your loneliness, express your doubts can be perceived as a weakness within your organisation or perhaps in your own mindset. To talk to your other peers, of a similar level, under the head of department, under the director to talk to them about your doubts within yourself, your limited confidence within your own capabilities, can be perceived as being weak.
It also depends on what your organisational culture is. If you’re a leader of your own organisation and you are literally working by yourself you only have a small team, it can seem even lonelier for you to exist. So what do you do about it? Because if you don’t do something about it, what can happen is that you can spiral into this state of low self-esteem, spiral into a state of depression, a depression that you are then trying to hide from everybody else.
You get into a state of mind where you literally put on a mask when you get into your leadership role and when you come home to a lonely house or be it surrounded by your family, you’re lonely in your thoughts and you take that mask off and you just dive deep into this state of closed down depression, a depression that other people may not necessarily see, a depression that you just keep to yourself a depression that has to be a secret for you because if you were to show it, it can be another sign of weakness and that’s the truth of it.
Organisationally and socially we expect leaders to be strong people. That’s how we want them to be. That’s how we see leaders to be, but leaders are only human beings. I remember despite all of the people that I ever commanded despite all of the high-risk situations I was ever in charge of, there were still times of doubt for me. There were still times of incredible loneliness for me. There were still times when I felt to myself that I could not share this with any one of my peers for fear of being perceived to be weak.
Of course you can’t share it with the chief of the organisation, the CEO of the organisation, because is that going to prevent you from ever being able to move up even further? Is that going to cut your ties, your opportunities for anything further on?
So what do you do as a leader guys? What do you do? Do you have to live with this pain of loneliness? Do you just put up with it? Do you just see through your leadership life knowing that you can’t talk to anybody? Knowing that you certainly can’t share this with those that work for you? You probably can’t share it with those that work at the same level as you because you might be seen as being weak. You can’t share it above you because your bosses might think that you are so weak that you can’t be afforded a future opportunity for further promotion, so you might’ve burned your bridges. You’re almost stuck. You’re stuck in this hole that you can’t get out of.
Well, I’m here to say that there are ways of getting away from that. There are ways of unburdening yourself. There are ways of sharing your thoughts, your feelings, your limiting beliefs, your challenges, your mental thought patterns that you’ve got yourself stuck into. There are ways of sharing those without anybody seeing that as a perceived weakness. The truth of it is this. If you were to share any one of those thoughts with any other leader, I will guarantee that they are all having the same thoughts as you. As I found when I shared my thoughts with other leaders. You don’t have to share the thoughts with the same leaders in the same organization as yourself, doing exactly the same job as yourself because whatever the technical knowledge that you have to know in the job that you’re in is so different from anything else, the concept of leadership, however, is fundamentally the same. The same responsibilities, the same pressures, the same types of decisions that you need to make, the same types of loneliness that you experience, the same doubts that you might have within your own mind, the same imposter syndrome that you might create within your mindset.
What I found in my time as a leader is that you need to talk. There are so many people that you can talk to, that you could go to at networking meetings where other leaders gather. You can create your own groups of leaders that come together in action planning groups or something like that. Action planning sets. I remember forming an action planning set with five of the leaders. It was like a mastermind. We got together every couple of months and it was an open and safe environment. We could talk about anything and we shared ideas and we shared our concerns and we shared our doubts, but it was a supportive environment. Now, if you’re going to create that environment, you have to choose the right people to be within that environment.
I once spent two days working with some senior leaders in an organisation where this subject of loneliness of leadership came up. Some of the stuff that they were sharing within that room was just incredible. It resonated with me so much and I felt so blessed to be in a position where they could ask me these things, these concerns that I had been through many, many years ago and I was able to respond to them.
They asked me things about how to manage upwards. They asked me things about how to manage their debt. They asked me how to develop themselves. They asked me how to reframe that in a language and all of this stuff, I’ve done myself. This is what the right kind of coach can do for you. This is what the right kind of environment could do for you.
I think the basis of everything that I’m saying here is that we need to recognize that leadership is a job of responsibility rather than authority. It is a job of service rather than a job of an ego, and it can be the most loneliest place in the world because you have to make some of the decisions in the most lonesome environment in the world and fundamentally you are the person responsible for the outcome of your decisions and that in itself can make it very, very lonely.
We are all human beings and as human beings we are as fallible as the next person. We can have the same kind of doubts as a next person. We can lack the confidence of another person. We can have the imposter syndrome than any other human being can have, no matter how good we are at the job that we’re in.
So there’s always somebody out there. There are always groups of people out there who feel, think and behave just the same as you do. Go out, find them, create your own network. Go find yourself a coach. You don’t have to be lonely. The thing is this, if you find the right people around you, if you find the right coach, if you find the right community, if you find the right group around you because you’re able to offload a lot of your disempowering thoughts, your performance is probably going to increase. Your effectiveness as a leader is probably going to increase tenfold. That is my experience. That continues to be my experience because I continue to have mentors and coaches in my life and hopefully that will be also your experience.