If you’re a leader, you’re in a different category–one that by definition automatically has fewer people in it. Sometimes this comes at a surprise. When you’re not the leader, you assume that the person up front, who may be talking to hundreds of people, who seems to be surrounded by people, who is regularly in meetings–that they couldn’t possibly be lonely.
And yet, unless they are working in a large institution with lots of peers at the same level on the organizational chart, leaders experience loneliness. They live with decisions and consequences in a fundamentally different way than the followers. Their authority certainly doesn’t make friendship impossible, but can change it so much that it can be hard to recognize.
Often a leader has highly specialized education and training–which can be intellectually isolating. Perhaps the number of people who can comprehend the leader’s deepest intellectual ponderings is very small, and not even in the same geographical location.
If leaders can’t find constructive ways to live with this loneliness, it can take a toll on their lives–their social lives, their family lives, their physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional health.
First, admit that leadership can be lonely. The feeling isn’t fake–it’s an accurate indicator of reality. Admitting it helps us live with it–not in a way that promotes self-pity, but in a way that helps us realize it’s a normal part of the job, and one that can be handled in healthy ways. Ironically, admitting that leadership is lonely can make it less lonely–you really are surrounded by people who love you, who are your very real friends, who would do just about anything for you.
Second, make friends with true peers in your field that work outside of your organization. Go to professional conferences where you can physically see big groups of people who live under similar loads of responsibility. Just seeing them can be tremendously encouraging. Even better, if you make friends, compare notes, and share experiences–you’ll be amazed at how inspired you’ll feel to go back and keep making a difference.
Third, ask those closest to you how they are experiencing you. Do they believe that you are flourishing socially, even though the job is intrinsically isolating?
Fourth, remember that less can be more. You don’t necessarily need more friends–but everyone needs at least one close friend. Perhaps, someone who has been a leader and deeply understands the pressure you are under–perhaps they’ve experienced far greater pressure than you can imagine and can help you see your situation with a recalibrated perspective. We all need mentors.
Fifth, pivot off that lonely feeling to extend friendship to those you suspect are more lonely than you. Not as projects–but as comrades. This helps us combat self-pity and helps us maintain perspective.
Sixth, Our Lord’s name is Immanuel, which means “God with us”. This means that no matter how lonely we feel, He is there. We’re never totally alone. He experienced ultimate loneliness–God forsakenness on the cross–and rose again offering us friendship. Pray. He’s there.