Being a leader is lonely work.
As an executive coach, I hear it from new leaders often, especially those who were promoted from within. They’ll tell me, “I was doing a good job as an individual contributor, but I’m not sure what I should be doing now that I’m a leader. I feel really alone.” They find themselves in leadership roles without much guidance, and they don’t know how to skill up to effectively fulfill their new responsibilities.
Every leader has to find their own way of doing the work of leadership. Everyone has had a variety of bosses in their career, but it can be tough to tell whom to emulate when you become a leader yourself. New leaders often feel like they aren’t providing any real value to the organization when they used to contribute so much. Some get sucked into a spiral of trying to do more and more work, all while missing the real work of leading.
To some extent, it’s true: As a leader, you are alone. You can’t express doubts to your boss because you don’t want them to doubt you. You can’t express your doubts to the people you manage because you don’t want them to know you aren’t sure of your choices and actions. You are careful about what you share at work, and you may be unsure about whom you can trust.
It is lonely being a leader, and leadership is lonely work — but that loneliness can be eased. Here are five simple ways to help yourself overcome some of the loneliness of leadership:
1. Establish Lifelines
Find friends outside your industry and workplace to spend time with. You need a safe space to vent, and it will be better for you to have an outside perspective.
For about a year, I was a leader in a very toxic workplace. During that time, one of my friends once said to me, “You are really different lately. You seem really edgy and unhappy.” He was right — I was. His words helped me think about the situation differently and to make some better decisions. I was less lonely because he cared. Having friends helps.
2. Exchange Answers for Questions
Give up on being a leader who knows the answers. Give up on being an “all-knowing dad” stye of leader and allow yourself to say, “I don’t know. How do you think you can find out?”
Your staff will be amazed by your engaging and empowering leadership, and you won’t be working late into the night trying to solve every problem by yourself. Your questions will allow people to work on problems together, creating a deeper sense of team cohesion. Everyone will share in the problem-solving — including you.
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3. Manage Up
Loneliness is worse when you are out of the loop, so create allies in the people above you. They believed in you when they promoted you. Help them see you can succeed and their belief was right. Share positive triumphs regularly and ask for advice on challenges they might be able to help with.
This can’t be contrived. If you want this to work, you have to genuinely respect your higher-ups and their opinions. If you trust them, then they can become your allies and you can become their confidante over time. Make sure to keep their secrets and you will become important to them, too. You will start to have a better understanding of what is happening in the organization.
4. Be Interesting
Allow yourself to have interests outside of work. Have friends. Host dinner parties. Experiment with hobbies. Take your vacation time (I know it can be hard). Your life will be fuller, richer, and more fulfilling if the time you spend outside of the office is deeply interesting and satisfying. Leadership will feel less lonely if it is only one part of a larger context of fulfillment.
5. Practice Extreme Self-Care
Leadership is hard. Between imposter syndrome and emotional labor, the job can really take its toll. Learning to replenish is important. When things get tough, reach for the vitamins and vegetables instead of the margaritas and martinis. The latter may feel good for a moment, but the former will help you thrive in the long term.
When you start to feel on the edge, double down on some self care. A massage, a good haircut, a manicure, or a personal trainer can help you feel like someone cares about you. It will also show that you care for yourself.
As a coach and thought partner of top leaders, I know leadership is hard. Almost every leader earns their salary by giving deeply of themselves. Lean in, connect with others, and find the real relationships all around you. Your colleagues are probably a little lonely, too. Together, you can find a path around the loneliness.
Melanie Parish is a public speaker, author, master coach, and author of The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators. Connect with her on Twitter: @melanieparish.