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Leadership is Lonely

Loneliness in leadership is paralyzing and causes significant issues and isolation for those who experience it. The higher the position of authority the higher the feelings of loneliness exist. General Colin Powell stated, “Command is lonely”. Loneliness can impact leaders of all ages and experience, but new leaders need the most support dealing with it. Most new leaders experience loneliness in their first year on the job. They spend 100% of their energy at work and leave nothing in the basket for their families or themselves. They are so consumed with work they have little time for development of meaningful relationships outside of work or relaxing activities to get away from it. The past year’s challenges have seen many small college coaches and administrative leaders leave the profession. The feeling of loneliness and the mental issues it creates are real and can impact sleep, mental health, cognitive abilities, and physical health.

Many people set goals early in their career to become the leader in charge of their department or organization. They seek public office, positions of authority and influence in their professional lives. They desire to be the person who has the final say and for whom the responsibility stops with them. Leadership positions can appear from the outside to be fun, powerful and full of respect. Legendary football coach Herman Boone once said during a talk that he loved the feeling of being, “the person holding the whistle”. The whistle was his symbol of authority and all the responsibilities that came with it. Most people believe in their hearts that they are the leader their organization requires and that is why they seek to be the person holding that whistle. Several good friends, once in a leadership position, realized it is sometimes not what they thought it would be due to a number of reasons, one of which was the isolation and loneliness it brought.

Athletic administrators are often asked how they could possibly be lonely as they meet daily with dozens of people, staff, student-athletes, coaches, other administrators, and alumni. The number of contacts they have is not the issue. It is the quality of those interactions and how meaningful they are. Sure, most athletic administrators have a ton of assistants and colleagues at their beck and call. I built a strong network of people with whom I could consult, but when push comes to shove, it was me who had to answer to the public alone. Everyone in leadership has faced that barrage of fire from public opinion at one time or another. It is a major part of the job! As William Shakespeare wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

Every leader in athletics is going to be placed into a position that they are often not prepared for, no matter their experience or background. Leaders become depressed and start to lack the enjoyment of the day to day work they perform when they deal with the toughest 10% of leadership issues. They never get a chance to turn off because they are tied to their smart phones, and other technological advances. They leave work but work never leaves them. Similar to University Presidents, athletic administrators experience the inability to turn it off. It seems they are always on.

Fear and anxiety creep into your day-to-day life and you find yourself tense and experiencing mental ups and downs. Leaders suffering from loneliness often just want to get away from other people. Lonely leaders can have a short fuse and no longer are as tolerant of staff members who demonstrate imperfections keeping them from performing at the level the leader wants. Leaders eventually start worrying too much about things they have little control over.

Leaders experiencing these symptoms will with their interactions create stress and discomfort in the workplace. They affect all those around them and eventually stifle creative thought and interactions with other staff members. It is easy to be a leader in the good times like when your budgets are good, your staff is complete, and your teams are winning. It might seem like everyone is happy during these times. The toughest times are when they have to face issues and make decisions as an athletic director where most people cannot help them with it.

The loneliness of leadership can be tough on leaders but ultimately you must be able to live with yourself on every decision or choice you make. Most of your friends and colleagues cannot give you advice because they have not been in a similar position and done what you are doing. You must look outside of your immediate peer group. Take the time to find mentors and peers who can advise you because they have led what you are leading. Confidentiality issues keep you from discussing highly sensitive issues with close friends or former mentors. Leaders usually find themselves isolated from those they once felt close to.

Loneliness can be especially hard on those who have risen to leadership roles from within. Assuming a leadership role through succession can be extremely isolating because it removes the leader from others who now report to them directly and leaves the new leader without a familiar peer group. The dynamics of the relationships you had with colleagues as a coach, or assistant or associate are much different than the ones you have as the athletic director.

When I assumed my first director of athletics position, I had been in almost every role possible within the department before taking the head position. I assumed I was fully prepared for the position. I was wrong. The person I ended up relying on the most in my early years was the retired athletic director who had hired me as a young head coach, Dr. Richard Gordin. Coach would stop by the office every day for a talk, and I welcomed his visits. He always asked me how any impending decision might impact the student-athlete? To Coach Gordin and myself, we were in this business for the student-athlete and felt every decision should be weighed against the impact on their experience. Whether you work in athletics or business, it is important to know who you are responsible for in your role. That made the tough decisions easier. His advice and empathy prepared me to be the person who sits alone in that office and tasked with the full responsibility for everything that happens within the department.

These are trying times for leaders and test their network of professionals who they rely on for support and advice. As an athletic director every team’s problem is your problem. Every coach’s issue is your issue. Your character is tested each day as you often deal with serious issues behind the scenes only to be second guessed publicly by those who often do not know the full story. Sometimes leaders are thrust into leadership positions by fate or circumstances. Regardless of how you come to the role, you will face the loneliness that leadership brings Surround yourself with great people who care about you. Leadership is one of the greatest privileges given to anyone. Let your loneliness drive you to be closer to your faith, closer to your family and friends and always make decisions in the best interests of those you serve.

Moving forward the following are ways I suggest you deal with the issues of loneliness in leadership.

1. Executive Leadership Coaching from an organization like EMP

2. Connect with peers in similar leadership positions as your own and build a network

3. Find a true confidante to share intimate emotions, struggles, fears, and concerns.

4. Increase your circle of friends inside and outside of work.

5. Seek personal and professional development opportunities.

6. Develop great listening skills.


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