How can you be surrounded by people, and yet feel so alone? This one goes out to anyone who has faced the loneliness of leadership.
There are a number of oxymorons in our world. A friend pointed out to me last night when I mentioned I wanted to write this post that oxymoron itself is an oxymoron (a sharp dumb thing). Another one in my mind is being an unloving parent – I don’t understand how those two terms go together. Or how about an “unforgiving Christian” – how can someone’s whose worldview is founded on being forgiven, be unforgiving?
For me, one of the biggest ones that seems to make no sense is the notion of a lonely leader. But unfortunately, this is the reality of a lot of people who are in positions of influence.
They say it’s lonely at the top. And “they” in this case are the ones at the top. Doesn’t matter what capacity of leadership you serve in, it’s not uncommon for the greatest servants of others to feel ignored and unseen. I know there have certainly been times in my life where I’ve seen this happen in a variety of settings (see Confessions of An Average Guy if you want more specifics). So I know what a real struggle it can be to want to continue in what you believe you’re called to do, but so stricken with loneliness and an overwhelming feeling that no one seems to be caring for the person who is caring for everyone else.
And so dear friend, I address this to you. As a leader in whatever capacity you exist – be it as a parent, as a CEO, as a church leader, as a volunteer, or wherever else you find yourself. Here are some thoughts on how to deal with the loneliness of leadership.
You are not the only one who has felt that way
I guess one of the most relieving thoughts is that you aren’t the only one to feel confused as to why there are so many people in your world, but you feel so alone sometimes. Why you are continually surrounded by others, but feeling unnoticed or uncared for.
I look through Scripture and I see leader after leader who went through that sensation – kings like David and Solomon, prophets like Elijah and Jesus, pastors like Paul and Peter. And I look through the people I have known and do know today and take comfort in knowing I’m not crazy for having felt that way at times.
So don’t beat yourself to death with condemnation or guilt or shame. You aren’t the only one who’s felt that way, and you won’t be the last.
You are not the only one going through what you’re going through
I mentioned Elijah before. He’s a leader whose experience has really helped me out when I’ve gone through hard times of feeling isolated. After experiencing one of the greatest victories he would ever face in his life in defeating 850 prophets of the gods Baal and Asherah, the spirit of the Queen Jezebel instilled fear into his and threatened to kill him. Elijah ran for his life to the desert. He hid under a mountain to protect himself.
The voice of God came to Elijah: “Elijah, what are you doing here?”. Elijah answers and says that he has been persecuted for doing the right thing, for representing God when no one else was, and for standing alone when no one else would. “I’m the only one!” he tells God. God comes to a second time with the same question after he’s had a bit of a rest, and asks Elijah: “What are you doing here?”. Again Elijah says, as we usually do:
I’m the only one
And man, what a horrible feeling that can be. Can you relate? Perhaps this is the reason you are facing frustration currently in your leadership. The words of God that come to Elijah afterwards are so comforting: “You’re not the only one, Elijah, there are 7000 other prophets who have not bowed to Baal or Asherah”.
I don’t know what you’re going through, but I do know this – that you and I can take comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in what we’re going through.
These first two are encouragements in what you’re facing. In the remainder, I’d like to address some practical ways to deal with the loneliness we face.
How much do you let people in?
So as leaders, our quandary is that we are surrounded by people, but no one knows who we are or how we’re really doing. It could be easy to blame everyone else for not seeing what’s going on with us.
But as leaders, we are often so guarded in how much we let others in.
And that can be for good reason. As the one who is supposed to be the strong or wise one in certain situations, we can’t always be dumping our gear on those we are serving.
But you get so used to acting like that that you act like that around everybody. You have a mask that you wear in the name of your “leadership” and the nobility of your heart or whatever reasons we use to justify the fact that we don’t let people get close.
It’s not up to others to come in with the battering ram to knock down the established walls we’ve put around our heart and mind and issues and pain and who we really are. It’s our job to simply open the door.
If you feel like no one knows who you really are… maybe you haven’t actually let anyone in.
And as you would so commonly communicate to others that you lead, you can’t really help them if they’re not willing to open up to you. You are the same, my friend. You and I need to let the walls down and let the real us shine and show in the right contexts. Don’t be afraid to do that.
You do so much for others – let others do the same for you.
Tell your oversight/support
We live in a very fortunate day and age where we have a lot of very well established support systems around our hierarchies. Most people in organizations, churches, corporations, wherever it is, have one or more “Direct Reports”, or people we report to, most organizations have a management team, and most leaders have ample opportunities to be around other leaders.
What we tend to do when we’re facing hard times is to blame our oversights or “apparent support” for not knowing or caring that we’re doing well.
…But have you told them?
It’s very easy to blame someone for something they don’t know about. And if you haven’t opened that line of communication, you’re the one keeping it a secret. You and I are responsible for our own well being at the end of the day. As my senior pastor said very well a few weeks ago, “My spirit is my responsibility”.
Have you told your leaders how you’re doing? If you’re the head honcho, have you told your board of directors? If you’re on a team, have you told someone on the team? Or are you just keeping up appearances and leading out of pretense rather than genuine openness? Have you told your wife? Or your husband? There’s a reason they committed themselves to you.
You blowing up and burning out is not worth the petty reasons why we keep things to ourselves.
Build your friendships
I always talk about this point. John Maxwell always talks about the Law of the Inner Circle in all his leadership material, and he’s so on point about it. You need people in your life who are with you because of who you are, not just because of what you do.
If you were to quit leadership tomorrow, shut shop and go home… who would you still have in your life who would stick by you?
If you can’t answer that question with any sense of confidence, it may be time to really reach out and build those close friendships again. We were made for each other. We need others in our lives. I always laugh that Adam was in the Garden of Eden with God, but the answer for Adam’s loneliness (that God identified, there’s no record about him flagging that) was to send him a person.
That’s often how God answers our prayers – through people. But if we’re so isolated and clenched up, we may miss the fact that maybe the help we have been begging and pleading for has come knocking on our door, and we in our spiritual piety may be missing it.
This is quite a challenge for people, and I wrote a post a while ago called 7 Ways To Make Better Friends that you may find helpful if you’re looking to improve this area of this life, but maybe not entirely sure how.
In summary, I would just like to remind you that what you do for others is amazing. Remarkable. You’re gifted for it. And so many people are blessed to have you in their life. No matter what capacity you serve in, I hope you find that in that loneliness, that you aren’t truly alone.
“He took on all my loneliness so I would never have to feel His”
Don’t forget to share this with anyone you think may find this helpful. You never know what a small prompt can do to help the leaders around us.