If I could name one word to describe the most surprising characteristic of life as a leader, it would be the word lonely. It's not a word they prepare you for, by the way. Yes, I had heard people say that leadership was lonely, but I didn't really believe them. The leaders who said they were lonely always seemed to be surrounded by plenty of people. They were needed, respected, and frequently sought out for wisdom and counsel.
Then one day I experienced it. With more leadership responsibility than I'd ever had before, I couldn't shake the aching loneliness I felt. I too was surrounded by people, lots of them, but most of them needed me for something I could do for them. My circle of people who just wanted to be with me without needing me was shrinking fast. I didn't want anyone and I wanted everyone at the same time.
Loneliness is a dangerous byproduct of leadership. One that can start to demoralize and diminish your effectiveness. The higher up you go in the leadership ranks of your organization, the more isolated you can become. It doesn't have to be this way, but loneliness and isolation are the natural destinations for leaders who haven't purposefully charted another course.
Part of the maturity of leadership is recognizing the potential for loneliness and isolation, and building in protective measures to combat them. In our book, Just Lead!, my co-author Sherry Surratt suggests that we need to have two kinds of people in our lives: encouragers and challengers. "The encouragers always have kind, affirming words for you that refresh you and keep you going. The challengers always make you think further, work harder, and push you to grow into all that you can be."
In addition to your encouragers and challengers, you need safe friends and family who don't need you because you're a leader. I've even had to learn to create new boundaries and expectations with my family. As a natural born leader, I have always been the one to take charge and make plans. A few years ago when my leadership capacity increased significantly, I realized I was avoiding hanging out with my family because I constantly felt the pressure to lead. Rather than relaxed and comfortable with the people who know me best, I was anxious and feeling tremendous responsibility. In an effort to run from those feelings, I drifted further into isolation, perpetuating my feelings of loneliness.
One of the greatest gifts we can give those we lead is a healthy version of ourselves. As Sherry wrote, "We were created to live in community. Hebrews 10:25 reminds us of this: ‘Don't give up the habit of meeting together; instead let us encourage one another.' God created us with the need to lean into him and to others. Ask God to send those encouragers into your life and for the courage to be vulnerable and admit when your encouragement tank is running low. God also reminds us in Proverbs 27:17, ‘As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.' Ask God today to send the challengers you need and the wisdom to seek their input."