“It’s lonely at the top” is not the way of leadership. If that’s the case for you, the quality of your leadership, your life at work, and your P&L, would likely be enhanced with some work on changing how you relate to others. I’ve seen this play out in my executive coaching work with clients.
Their successes add up to one theme: come on in … the water’s fine. Let down your guard with your colleagues and your people, and therefore let them get to know you. When you take that step, they’ll do their best work for you, and, by the way, you’ll probably appreciate the support and relationships you develop along the way.
By buying in to the notion of lonely leadership, and hiding what makes you vulnerable and human—that is, what you have in common with the people around you—you isolate yourself from others, and from the information needed to lead effectively. It also disengages your team—generations W, X, Y, and Z, and everyone in between— from what you hope to achieve.
Beyond being shy or introverted, there are many simple core beliefs that make a leader guarded. For example: the desire to “be professional”; “be leader-like”; “be business-like”; a reaction to stress; or that their trust in others is a gift rather than a right (e.g., hard-earned or lacking.)
Because of these beliefs they keep people at a distance. Without realizing it, they disable the fundamental shields-down transparency needed to inspire, engage, and relate to their people.
They wear a kind of mask that says, “I’m okay, therefore you need to be okay too.” The net effect of that approach to others is that they find the leader off-putting, and a) will project their own stories on to him or her (e.g., “He’s arrogant,” or “She’s aloof,” or “He’s not trustworthy,” etc.), and b) shuts people up, and shuts them down, banning the leader from information critical to lead.
When those around you are unable—either temporarily or on an ongoing basis—to connect with you at a human level, they will make up (or project) their own stories about you. And when you hear what people think of you, you will wonder at how inaccurate that may be.
Indeed the more self-protected the leader chooses to be, the less able they are to relate to those around them in ways that foster collaboration, teamwork, mentoring/developing, maintaining caring connections—all of which have been shown to be required for sustainable achievement.
Years ago a CEO came to me to complain about his board, and to get some coaching. He had been recruited about six months prior to our appointment, and mentioned that the organization had had four CEO’s in the last six years, so he was poised for board trouble. It was a large board with strong personalities, including some tough cookies, and a few who, according to my client, “have no business being there.” Before becoming CEO he had many years of experience at successively more responsible levels of similar organizations.
The week before I saw him, he had gotten a bad performance review for his first six months, delivered to him by the board’s executive committee. He was shocked and angered by the review, which he felt didn’t reflect him accurately. He didn’t say anything to the reviewers except to thank them for their candor.
Further inquiries into the situation revealed a high-degree of self-protection on my client’s part. Key people thought him off-putting, aloof, and even arrogant—all of which he felt were unwarranted. Because of this, his team and the board lacked engagement, and wondered how long “this one would last.” While he had made efforts to get to know his people (and the board members) through one-on-one meetings, his guarded style had disabled the possibility for making personal connections with any of them, despite his best effort.
With all of that withholding behavior, my client created many blanks for others to fill in, which people do automatically and unconsciously.
The result? After only six months on the job, his board was having serious doubts, and “should I stay, or should I go?” was the question my client presented me.
We talked through it, and I acknowledged the possibility the situation was a lost cause for even the most skilled CEO. Yet he acknowledged that there was no way to assess that before he gave them, or the situation, the benefit of revealing himself, and with that new behavior in place, doing what he is truly capable of doing.
After a careful look at what would be at stake for showing more of himself—and what was at stake if he DIDN’T do that, we agreed he would embark on a “get to know me” initiative. Through his one-on-one meetings he agreed to reveal some of who he is as a human, sharing some of his frustration, explaining where he feels he fell short, talking about his heartfelt hope and fears related to his role, and so on.
Over time, the board saw “a big change” for the better in him, and his leadership, which is ironic, since he hadn’t indeed changed anything but the behavior (and the beliefs driving it) masking himself. Years later, he remains at his post, and the organization is doing better than ever.
The cliché is that many leaders think they are supposed to avoid the “touchy-feely stuff” – to avoid vulnerability, and appear strong.
Yet when you make the effort to let others see and get to know what’s NOT strong about you as a human being, you create common ground for everyone around you. They won’t be able to help themselves: they’ll want to play at their best for your team.