The below is Lesson 1 from our Leadership Lessons series.
LESSON ONE: It’s Lonely to Lead
KEY QUESTION: How can leaders reduce loneliness without abdicating their leadership?
John Maxwell is correct. Leadership can be lonely.
It doesn’t have to be, but on some level, it always will be.
I don’t think we leaders believe this must be true for us, though. After all, leadership by nature isn’t a one-person sport. You only are leading if there are others following. Therefore, how lonely can leadership be? Aren’t people persistently around you? Aren’t you working and meeting with others?
When I resigned from my lead pastor role at Woodstock City Church, we had nearly 65 staff members. I genuinely loved every one of them, but relationally, I was significantly closer to a few of them. These few people had been through it with me. They were there for the good times and the bad times. They had seen me at my best and my worst. And they loved me well regardless.
They also took some vacations without me. To be clear, I literally mean some of my closest friends at work went on vacations together and didn’t invite me. They went to parties without asking me to join. They would grab lunch together, again, without me.
Seriously. We would meet and work together for hours every week. Share life. Share stories. Support each other. Care for each other. Then they would hang out without me.
It hurt. I felt lonely. Knowing that leadership is lonely didn’t help with my loneliness, though.
On some level, I understood. As the point leader, my words carried the most weight. My presence constantly changed the dynamic. No matter how much I tried to be “just one of the guys,” no point leader is just a regular staff member.
Leadership by nature puts you out in front — often alone. Hence, leadership feels lonely.
There are many unhealthy ways to combat the loneliness of leadership:
1. Stop casting vision and making decisions (I.E., Stop Leading)
The fastest way to remove the relational barrier between a leader and the follower is to stop leading. Don’t think for a minute this doesn’t happen or can’t happen to you. We will do almost anything to remove the tension of relational isolation.
There are much better solutions (see below), but in our humanity, facing immediate misery beckons immediate solutions. A straightforward solution is to stop behaving like the leader. The consequences of this action are catastrophic to the organization and your new relationships.
2. Pretend your presence is irrelevant.
Leaders hoping to remove workplace loneliness often start pretending their presence is irrelevant. That’s false humility, though, and it doesn’t work.
As the point leader, you can tell yourself all day that you are just like everyone else, but you are not. You are the leader, and everyone knows it. When you attempt to convince yourself otherwise, you only fool yourself. You might believe you’re just like everyone else, but nobody else in the organization is buying what you’re trying to sell.
Pretending your presence is irrelevant harms your leadership and the organization.
3. Start playing favorites to gain some friends.
I saved the best (and worst) for last. To become an equal at work, too many leaders engage with one or two other staff to force a more profound, barrier-free friendship. This can work, by the way. As a point leader, you can find a best friend or two from your followers. In doing so, you will simultaneously isolate everyone else in the organization, creating an impenetrable inner circle. This inner circle of trust will do nothing but create a massive lack of trust from those living outside the circle.
Solving leadership loneliness is essential. It’s a tension that needs our attention. So is the organizational mission you are called to lead. Unfortunately, I don’t believe you can internally solve the first without damaging the second. Organizational leadership brings an element of loneliness, but that doesn’t mean you have to remain lonely as a leader. Rather than surrender leadership or play favorites to reduce your loneliness, here are some better solutions to keep you emotionally and relationally healthy while protecting your leadership.
Healthy Solutions to Leadership Loneliness:
1. Accept the reality of some organizational isolation.
Decide that leadership loneliness is normal and expected. The person signing the paychecks will never fully be one of the guys/girls. If you think you can be just another average staff member, you will do more harm than good. It’s not entirely possible.
I certainly believe you can have deep and meaningful relationships with your team, but there will always be some element of distance. That’s healthy. When we accept this reality, it positions us to seek solutions outside of leadership abdication.
2. Engage relationally with people outside the organization.
As a point leader, if you only attempt to find relationships within the workplace, you’ll experience a persistent relational gap. A great solution is to prioritize relationships outside of work. Find people like you and who you want to be like and engage them. Add connections to your calendar, and don’t bail on them when the time comes. Use breakfasts, lunches, and coffees to spend time with friends outside of your staff. This isn’t a waste of time. The more relationally connected you are to friends outside of work, the less lonely you’ll feel at work.
A Note for Pastors: I encourage you to find relationships with people outside your staff and your congregation. It’s possible that a mature congregant can be an authentic friend, but these people are few and far between. Choose wisely and carefully from within the ranks.
3. Give your best to your family.
I’ll tell you who is always ready and willing to treat you like a normal person – your family. I love that about my family. No matter how my staff or congregation saw me, it was my wife and kids who knew me best, loved me anyway, and never felt my organizational position mattered. My family treats me like a person, not a leader or pastor.
Changing diapers and taking out the trash is a beautiful reminder that you are ordinary. Prioritize your family over everyone and everything else. As a leader, you’ll never feel lonely when you have a family looking forward to seeing you after work.
4. Be vulnerable with people.
Not in a weird way, but in an honest way. For instance, leaders who admit mistakes and ask for help remain connected to their workmates. Sure, you may never have fully open relationships in return, but odds are you will increase the relational connection with others by going first in vulnerability.
Being vulnerable with your team will not solve the loneliness. There will always be a gap between you as the leader and those you lead. Increased vulnerability will, however, help you remain more connected.
5. Remember, you are most likely loved more than you know (or feel).
Unfortunately, the kindest words are often spoken of others when they aren’t present. Funerals are the perfect (and final) examples of this reality. If you are a caring and effective leader, no doubt your staff loves and cares for you. They probably tell their families that they are grateful for your leadership. They probably brag to their friends. They probably back you up when others come to attack. The problem is that you never see or hear this happen. But it’s happening, and you should believe that.
My story of leadership loneliness…
When I first became a lead pastor, I assumed, at least relationally, it would feel similar to the job I had prior. I was the family ministry director for a young but rapidly growing church. Our leadership team consisted of our senior pastor, executive pastor, preschool director, and me. During my three years at Southside Church, I spent a lot of time with each of these people. We worked together, met together, ate together, and spent evenings in community groups together. From my perspective, we were all friends.
In hindsight, though, I imagine our senior pastor felt loved and somewhat left out, too. For instance, one summer, we asked the executive pastor and his family to vacation with us. We joined a small group with them, too. Guess who we never invited on vacation? Guess who we never wanted to join our community group?
If you had asked me back then, I would have said without hesitation that Chris Patton, our senior pastor, was a good friend. And he was, but only to an extent. And that extent didn’t include vacations, trips, or friendly lunches. He was the boss, and that came with a dynamic.
It wasn’t until I became a lead pastor that I realized how Chris must have felt on the other side of the rest of our staff and me. When I began experiencing leadership isolation, I decided to resolve the tension by becoming “one of the guys.” For a good season of my early leadership at Woodstock City Church, I attempted to ignore the reality that I was the point leader. Don’t get me wrong – I led and moved our organization forward. But, all the while, I was trying to be just like everyone else simultaneously.
The problem is that nobody on our team or in our church saw me “just like everyone else.” I wasn’t just “one of the staff.” I was the lead pastor. I was the point leader. And that reality created a small but ever-present relational gap between me and everyone else.
This realization hit me hard. It caused me to feel a bit depressed, actually. I wanted to be an average person at work. I wanted to walk into a room without anyone noticing. But that was false humility. That hope wasn’t realistic or helpful to the organization. I became a much better leader when I realized that owning my role would best support the mission. Equally, I concluded that finding my deepest relationships outside of our team would free me from trying to force something that could never fully happen inside our team, too.
I intentionally found a group of guys not dependent on my leadership to resolve my loneliness. We formed a group and started meeting for dinner and spending time together. Fast forward a few years, and we are still meeting, sharing meals, and even vacationing together. These men resolved my relational disconnection at work while freeing me to be the best leader at work.
At the same time, my closest relationships at work could be what they needed to be – friendship with a small but significant leadership separation. It didn’t bother me, though, because I had my people – just not from work.
Here’s a bit more proof: I still talk with Chris Patton all the time. I am consulting with him and Southside Church right now in my business. And, we are better friends today than we ever were while I was on his staff. Our conversations are more open and honest. I believe that is possible because neither of us is the leader of the other. We are now just friends.
The same is beginning to happen with my former team at Woodstock City Church. While I’ve only been gone a few months, I sense that my former coworkers are becoming friends on a new level. Our conversations are different because my role in their life is different. It’s refreshing. It’s also more proof that leading can be lonely if we attempt to build our relationship life from the workplace.
Every leader needs a relational connection to those who are following, but your primary relationships cannot also come from the group following you. You can try, and in some cases, it may work, but there is a price. For you and for the organization you’re leading.
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