isolating effects of leading

Why effective leadership is lonely and exhausting

Posted in Leading an Organization
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When I started my practice, I did not comprehend much about how isolating, lonely, and exhausting leading a group would be. I probably should have noticed during my early leadership experiments when in high school or college. But I don’t think I was paying attention enough to understand what was happening. But now, in retirement, I’m ready to reflect on the isolating effects of leadership. 

So why is effective leadership so lonely and exhausting? Why does leading tend to isolate us from those we lead?

Consequences of the power to decide

By definition, leaders are decision-makers. And, of course, those decisions affect others. The truth my earlier self did not understand is that each decision that I make reminds others of my authority. In other words, the act of decision-making highlights the distance between the decision-makers and those following. Inevitably, leading puts a spotlight on a gap between the leaders and those they lead. 

Additionally, there often is a good bit of irritation about that imbalance in authority and personal agency. Perhaps even at a societal level, some of the roiling discontent over “elites” reflects this underlying resentment about authority. Most leaders I talk to experience this upset, and they do not enjoy it. Our awareness of the isolating effects of leading is powerful on those days.

Different decisions; Different responses

Of course, not all decisions are the same. The most isolating choices are those that are unpopular. There are two types of unpopular decisions: ones we make, and ones we where we are merely the bearer-of-bad news. Both of these can be rough, but yes, it is harder when the unpopular decision is perceived to be the leaders’ decision. Those choices especially amplify the differences in authority.

For example, my most unpopular decisions were when I would change the formula used to determine clinicians’ pay. In the early years, pay adjustments occurred six times until I found a way that worked. Those decisions were unpopular enough for employees to leave. And indeed, those decisions made clear that I had authority that others did not have.

Adding to these tough decisions is knowing that my choices will add a greater sense of distance, isolation, and, perhaps, alienation from me.

Another example of a very unpopular decision was when Blue Cross/Blue Shield cut the rates they paid clinicians. But in that case, I had nothing to do with the choice itself—only our responses to it. Announcing this change was hard for staff to hear, and yet we did not directly lose any employees—different responses.

I have written about the BCBS crisis here: 

In other posts, I have highlighted some painful situations born out of my experiences: 

Power differences affect the rules around emotional venting

Another place we notice the division between leaders and the led is in the unwritten rules around the venting of emotion. You may have observed that a leader may have some authority but does not have the same latitude of expression as non-leaders. Why? Because the power differences alter how others experience leaders’ intensity. What I mean is this.

When an employee vents, their bosses may be bothered, but they are not afraid. When a boss vents, employees may experience both an emotional injury and experience fear. 

For example, I confronted a graduate student about her lack of participation and general disinterest in a small group I led. I was gentle but direct in making my observations. 

Her response was to go off on how little she thought of her classmates. She was heated. My response was calm but firm. I attempted to empathize with her discontent while encouraging her to engage in the group. 

Two hours after the conversation, I got an email from her. She was terrified I was going to punish her with a bad grade for what she said. 

The situation reminded me that even those who present as strong, confident, and opinionated, underneath it all, are quite fragile in the face of authority. Authority changes the experience. Some are always aware that a leader can hurt them more than the reverse.

Furthermore, I knew that I did not have the same latitude to express my frustrations in the situation. There was no space for my emotions in the conversations. 

Leaders are not on an equal plane with those they manage. Therefore, different rules apply. And frankly, I find the awareness of those constraints highlights the isolating effects of leading.

The isolation of defending decisions we do not like

Another aspect of the manager’s role is to be the voice of management to the people we are managing. Unfortunately, this is uncomfortable at times.

When discussing a decision, the standard management rule is that members of the leadership team are allowed to have a vocal and vigorous debate. But when the decision is settled, the leadership team is expected to close ranks and be one voice. A united front is essential. And certainly, disclosing the discussion is off-limits.

Inevitably, there are times when managers disagree with the leadership group’s decision. Yet there is no option but to defend the decision to others. Of course, this situation is especially distasteful when taking heat over an unpopular policy that one does not like. 

When facing this conflict, we can feel alienated from everyone, fellow leaders, and supervisees alike. 

The necessity of confidentiality

At times as a leader, we feel isolated because of the confidential nature of the information we carry. 

For example, we cannot share all we know about a terminated employee or about one who exited poorly. Another example–we cannot share all we know is about employee pay. As a leader, I must protect employee information, no matter how difficult the situation. 

Furthermore, there were times when I did not share information to protect the company’s or my interests. For example, an employee challenged me over the fairness of my salary. The employee wanted to be sure I was not “over-compensating” myself. Resolutely, I did not share the requested information. Regrettably, that meant I never learned whether my salary exploited the employee or not.

Indeed, the experience was isolating.  

Errors I made that isolated me

Early in my tenure as a leader, I repeated an error. I would invite employees to offer opinions about an upcoming decision I was contemplating. In doing so, I was hoping for an agreement and perhaps some buy-in. What I often got was irritated staff, especially if I failed to come to the same conclusion as they did.

Eventually, I learned my lesson and stopped sharing my “first-draft” thoughts. I learned the hard way that when sharing with an employee or supervisee, a leader is not allowed to brainstorm. Any expression of a possible direction quickly morphs into marching orders, sometimes without my notice. 

A more cautious approach on my part was less confusing and worked much better. 

Leaders and followers evaluate decisions based on different criteria

Continuing this thought, I discovered that my criteria for evaluating decisions were quite different from my employees. I wanted to make decisions based on all the factors that might impact constituents. Employees always started with a focus on selfish effects. I might persuade employees to see the bigger picture, but that is never where they began. That is not their fault. It is the nature of people. 

Again, a slower and more deliberative approach worked better. I needed to think of consequences from as many angles as possible. I could include employees in the discussion only when I was pretty settled. Even then, I would usually run it by one of my less reactive employees before sharing the decision with the whole group.

In a sense, what I came to was the constant awareness that no other person was entirely in the same spot as I was. My position was unique. 

My current thought is this. Embracing the isolation of leadership is simply part of the job. Accepting this truth works better than being frustrated at the separateness. 

Antidotes to the isolating effects of leading

We could, of course, talk about the isolating effects of leading with others. But we don’t much. Why not? 

First off, who would be sympathetic to our distress? Those we supervise? It doesn’t work well to talk about the isolating effects of having authority with someone who has less. Expressing complaints to these listeners feels insensitive and can be irritating.

How about talking with our managerial peers? Better. But we mostly interact with those who are either higher or lower in our organizational hierarchy. It can be challenging to find the right person and context. 

In the end, a sympathetic spouse or friend may be an excellent option. We certainly should seek out supportive people outside our workplace. They can be a fantastic help. The alternative is we carry the struggles on our own, and that is not great.

Help from the comradery of the team

But I hear a protest. Leaders have each other, and that is true. There are many times when members of a leadership team are a supportive resource for each other. That works well when the tension is outside the group. Fortunately, that was the most frequent case on my leadership team.

And yet, some of the times when we feel the isolating effects of leading are when the struggle is within the leadership team. When the stress is internal, where does one go? Here is what I did.

Build a support team

For over a decade, I had a monthly meeting with the manager of another practice. His practice was about a 20-minute drive from mine. We spent most of the time updating and discussing practice-related issues. Sometimes we shared proprietary information that might have hurt the other’s practice. We never misused the information.

I think we both found it very helpful to have someone to talk to outside our respective practices. There was freedom in how we talked about topics that we were struggling with. I think we found mutual support that we both value even today. 

The other place where I found the freedom to share some of the burdens of leading was in my therapy. My personal therapist is also a leader in his practice. I could bring my struggles and find insightful and empathetic responses from someone who had been there. Again this was an excellent resource for me and continues to be. 

In conclusion

I have enumerated quite a list of reasons that leaders feel isolated and alone. The challenge then is in building a personal support system to process the challenges. My way of avoiding the isolating effects of leading included my leadership team, friends, spouse, another practice manager, and my own individual therapist. 

May you be so blessed.

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