While traditional models of stoic leaders who show no signs of vulnerability have become outdated, the fact remains that leaders need to shoulder the responsibility of fulfilling strategic and structural organisational goals with confidence and independence. They are expected to keep staff morale high especially during challenging times, take tough and often unpopular decisions, and anticipate future challenges.
They are regarded as reference points for all the employees and their actions are always under scrutiny and judgement. Unless carefully managed, the long-term effects of these challenging demands can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation that can be detrimental to leaders’ performance as well as to their physical and mental health. The impact can have negative consequences on leaders, employees, and the business.
Research shows a strong relationship between leaders who experience loneliness and health problems such as addiction to alcohol, excessive eating, a sedentary lifestyle, and increased blood pressure. They are also prone to experiencing feelings of anxiety and helplessness as well as elevated symptoms of stress.
These factors may result in a decline in leadership effectiveness such as distorted sense of judgement, taking uncalculated risks, burnout, and a lack of empathy and understanding towards colleagues and direct reports. While some extent of loneliness and isolation are somewhat inevitable for leaders, they can buffer their detrimental effects by engaging in the following practices.
The rapid pace of corporate life often means that leaders rarely find time to reflect about their decisions, actions, and reactions. Yet, this is a critical aspect of good leadership as it enables self-evaluation and the opportunity to process the various events and situations that they deal with on a daily basis.
Self-reflection also gives leaders the chance to slow down and assess the degree of alignment between their behaviour and their values, how stress and pressure are impacting their decision-making, emotional reactions, and performance in general. This increases the chances of recognising areas that need to be addressed including feelings of isolation and loneliness and their effects.
Coaching and mentoring
Another valuable resource for leaders to feel supported is coaching and mentoring. Having someone to talk to openly while sharing concerns and dilemmas can go a long way towards mitigating the impact of isolation. Coaching and mentoring relationships create a psychologically safe space where leaders can let down their guard and be as vulnerable as they need to while feeling understood, cared for, and guided by their coach or mentor.
Professional peer groups provide precious opportunities for leaders to share and discuss common concerns and challenges without worrying that they will negatively affect the morale of their employees. Peers can provide a safe space of containment where leaders can open up without fearing judgement.
They also provide an opportunity for leaders to know that they are not alone in experiencing feelings like discouragement, demotivation, and helplessness. By talking with other leaders going through similar emotions, they can help each other generate ideas and options to address their concerns.
Getting regular feedback from direct reports and employees can be an excellent opportunity for relationship building for leaders. Soliciting candid and honest feedback requires that leaders first cultivate a culture of connection and openness. Employees need to be certain that they will not be admonished, side-lined, or discriminated against for speaking their mind. In this way, leaders can get also gain insight into their potential blind spots that are otherwise difficult to identify and recognise.
Learning and development
Continuous professional development, especially in group settings, can provide a goldmine of opportunity for leaders to connect with others and learn new skills, explore personal strengths, and stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone. It helps them to keep up to date with new developments in their area of expertise.
This includes professional development programmes on contemporary leadership styles and practices that help leaders remain relevant and effective in dealing with the rapidly changing socio-economic environment.
Investing in meaningful personal relationships
Finally, living a balanced life that prioritises personal relationships and deep connections with friends and family serves as a powerful buffer against loneliness and isolation. This can be challenging simply due to time constraints.
However, leaders also tend to overidentify with their work as a source of fulfilment and purpose, which in turn makes them feel more comfortable and understood when relating to people who share their work context. This can easily become a trap that can distance leaders from intimate connections with their loved ones and friends outside work, which in the long term can contribute to further to isolating themselves
Isolation and loneliness need not be an unchallenged necessary evil for today’s leaders. There are tangible practices and resources that can help leaders stay meaningfully connected with others while shouldering the responsibilities and accountabilities that come with a leadership role.
Patrick Psaila is a warranted psychologist, executive coach and training consultant. He is the co-director of PsyPotential Ltd, a company that specialises in human factors, leadership and people development in organisations.
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