Prepare leaders to be lonely - or to fail


If there’s just one thing that I’ve learned in my careers in the corporate and military, it’s that leading others is a privilege not to be taken lightly.  In fact, this mindset is so central to the military ethos that we go to great lengths to make sure that the young men and women we place in command positions are as well prepared as they possibly can be to face the multitude of challenges the job will bring both on operations and at home.  

My experience tells me that the corporate world is catching up, in some regards, on how it develops its leadership talent if the billions of dollars we spend annually on leadership development training is any yardstick.  But, it has to be said, I think there’s at least one area where  the corporate world is falling short.  There’s one truth about leading others that doesn’t ever seem to get a mention.

Leading is lonely.

OK, that’s an exaggeration - I’m honoured to count many of the people I’ve led in the past to be amongst my closest friends.  What I mean is that in the act of leading others, a person will eventually find themselves at a point where they face a decision.  There will be the easy way, the popular way and it may even be the right way.  Then there will be the times when the right way is the hard way, the unpopular way that nobody wants to take.

The lonely way.

And it’s those moments - moments of truth, if you like - that determine what sort of leader they really are.

Everyone wants to be the leader, until it’s time to lead

The role of leader offers these moments of truth because it’s not actually one role, but three:

  • Achieve the mission

  • Build the team

  • Nurture the individual

So, not only have we got three roles to think about, but each one has the potential to be in conflict with the other two.  Sure, the organisation will say how people are their most important asset and stress the value of teamwork - but a few quarters of missed targets and KPIs going the wrong way might provoke a different conversation.  Even the team will have a view on that one - everyone likes the thrill of achievement but there’s nothing like a steady run of missed targets and failures to throw morale into a nosedive.  Even with a strong team kicking goals regularly it’s still not over - any team is comprised of individuals each with their own strengths, weaknesses, needs and human flaws that will interact to deliver a steady stream of issues for you to deal with. Sometimes, don’t forget, the individual that needs attention will be you - neglect yourself and you’ll soon be be no use to anyone.

To keep things interesting, there’s no magic formula for where to focus your energy at any given moment but rest assured that there will be no shortage of opinions on your choice - afterwards.  

No wonder it’s tempting to take the path of least resistance and try to please everyone.  But as an old mentor of mine once reminded me, everyone wants the leaders job - until it’s time to do the leaders job

Prepare to disappoint people

I once listened to a talk by Marty Linsky, co-author of Leadership on the Line, where he beautifully and succinctly summarised leadership as disappointing people at a rate they can tolerate.  It captures the leader’s paradox perfectly - to lead effectively, a leader has to first abandon the comfort of the tribe and step forward.  From that moment on, life is going to be full of opportunities to disappoint others - or to take the easy way out and avoid disappointing them.

Maybe it’s giving someone the news that their performance hasn’t improved sufficiently to justify continuing their employment and so they’re to be released.  Maybe it’s telling your manager that what they’ve just directed you to do is unethical at best and illegal at worst.  Maybe it’s facing a decision where every available option is a different version of awful - and yet where making no decision will be even worse.

Those are the moments when leading feels like the most lonely job on the planet and the only way for a leader to face those moments, to lean into them and embrace them without running from them, is to be prepared for them by developing the emotional strength to cope with the moments of loneliness that are part of the territory.

One of the hallmarks of a great leader is that they develop a strong bench of future leaders to take their place.

What are you doing to help your people prepare for the loneliness of leadership?

Adam O'DonnellComment