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Loneliness in Leadership

I have been out of the country for about a month and recently returned. As I went about the business that took me there, I decided to take a hard look at the society I was in and the way people live. I took a personal assessment of the degree of happiness, connection, warmth and loneliness that I was experienced compared to how it is here in Kenya. I came to see clearly that despite our struggles, corruption, pain, hunger, we still remain more connected as human beings than in the West.

The degree of loneliness in the West is so high that you can actually feel it in the air. You can sense the individualism, lack of connection and emptiness that people experience as they go about life.

What’s sad is that this is fast creeping in to our society – my Kenya.

Loneliness is a big issue especially in leadership.

Lonely. What a sad word. What a pathetic word. What a wussy word. It summons in my mind a trope of despair, of darkness, of loserdom. It calls to mind self-pitying lament. Pathetic!

Dealing with loneliness is not a skill they teach you in a Harvard Business School case study course. It does not come up in elite business leadership seminars. It is not a quality of winners. It is a word not even whispered by Masters of the Universe.

The higher up you go, the more pervasive loneliness becomes. In a recent study, half of the CEOs who responded reported feelings of loneliness. For new CEOs, the percentage rose to 70 percent. The responsibility of a role that involves making the toughest decisions alone—without supporters, mentors, or friends—creates a sense of loneliness few ever experience.

I have only one desire today – to share with you a few thoughts, with a hope and prayer that I can bring some small measure of inspiration and lift to you. I think you need that; I think we all do.

I suppose you have watched President Uhuru as he speaks to the nation and is listened to by the world. I watch him with great interest. I observed him realizing the importance of what he is saying. As I look at him, I think of the terrible loneliness of leadership. True, he has advisors. He has at his beck and call any number of men with whom he can consult; but when all the chips are down, he has to face the world alone, as it were. His advisors do not face the cannon fire of public opinion. That comes to the leader.

As I sensed the loneliness of leadership while watching him, there came to my mind some great words from William Shakespeare: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” . Leaders, while often surrounded by people, are at unique risk for loneliness. There are fewer people that can appreciate the unique challenges that leading brings. Those that can understand this unique burden are often too consumed with their own leadership journey to offer substantial perspective.

Leaders have fewer people to turn to when things get tough. Who in the organization, after all, has had to sign off on the types of decisions that you must make each day? It can certainly be difficult to confide in and bare your soul to direct reports. And those who sit above you in the corporate or organizational food chain (such as the chairman of the board) are also not the ones to whom you want to display weakness or vulnerability.

The price of leadership is loneliness. The price of adherence to conscience is loneliness. The price of adherence to principle is loneliness. I think it is inescapable. The Savior of the world was a Man who walked in loneliness. I do not know of any statement more underlined with the pathos of loneliness than His statement: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” .

There is no lonelier picture in history than of the Savior upon the cross, alone, the Redeemer of mankind, the Savior of the world, bringing to pass the Atonement, the Son of God suffering for the sins of mankind.

As a leader, you often cannot really talk honestly about your business even to your spouse or significant other. They truly cannot understand the unique frisson of terror that you wake to every day as you rise to try to methodically slay your individual dragons. And even if they could understand, is it really fair to burden them with your own existential anxiety? Each of us faces the prospect of possibly failing every day, but most of the time it would cause useless anxiety to share that with our familial intimates, any more than we would share it with our employees. They don’t want to hear about your problems.

Loneliness does exist, but there are things you can do to cope and overcome. We are biologically, cognitively, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong to communities. The more you do to bring yourself back into that state of being, the more of its benefits you will experience.

I strongly advocate leader participation in peer learning / advisory groups; what I can a Mastermind Group. Not only will such settings provide you with meaningful learning opportunities to strengthen your skills and augment your toolkit, it also offers a safe haven for you as a leader to open up about problems to others who can relate to your struggles and provide concrete suggestions if not solutions. Oftentimes, the mastermind group also develops into social relationships that add balance to your life.

Further, it is important that you seek support. One of the hallmarks of a successful leader is knowing when to get help. Look up or connect with a Leadership Coach or a counsellor, but find someone who can help you regain perspective, align priorities, and adapt healthy practices.

I would like to conclude by saying to you today, you leader, this is your lot.

You will feel the loneliness of your faith.

It is not easy, for instance, to be virtuous when all about you there are those who scoff at virtue.

It is not easy to be honest when all about you there are those who are interested only in making “a fast buck.”

It is not always easy to be temperate when all about you there are those who scoff at sobriety.

It is not easy to be industrious when all about you there are those who do not believe in the value of work.

It is not easy to be a man of integrity when all about you there are those who will forsake principle for expediency.

I would like to say to you, leader, there is loneliness—but a man of your kind has to live with his conscience. A man has to live with his principles. A man has to live with his convictions. A man has to live with his testimony. Unless he does so, he is miserable—dreadfully miserable. And while there may be thorns, while there may be disappointment, while there may be trouble and travail, heartache and heartbreak and desperate loneliness, there will be peace and comfort and strength.

Feel free to contact us and we will be honoured to walk the leadership journey with you.

Kind regards,
Njeri Muchunu

By Njeri MuchunuLoneliness in Leadership
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