The higher up you go in your career the more isolated you become, this is a fact borne out by the numbers - in the majority of companies there is only one CEO or President. However, recently I’ve been speaking with emerging leaders who identified that loneliness can begin long before you get to the top, creating problematic patterns that become hard to see over time. Let’s take the example of one emerging leader I spoke to; when she decided she wanted to become a people manager she was able to shadow one off-and-on for a few weeks at her place of work. Seeing things more from a manager’s point of view opened her eyes to a different perspective, but once back at her desk her newly enlightened views were not welcomed by her team. “I felt as if I was a pariah for supporting a decision management had made, I quickly learned to keep my new perspective to myself or I would have caused an unrepairable rift between myself and my team.”
Sound familiar? At one point or another many of us have faced this concern as our careers have evolved and our aspirations surpassed those of our colleagues. The pattern this sets is one where you find it is just easier to keep to yourself. Perhaps this is some form of leadership “Darwinism” where emerging leaders learn to keep their own council in preparation for achieving the top spot and having no peers to test ideas with, but that is an archaic approach in todays working environment. So what can you do when your fledgling leadership skills need to be let out, but where that would be damaging to your peer-based working relationships? There are many options. The first is volunteerism. Committees, boards and projects all require leadership skills and there is room to exercise them, to learn and grow in an environment that welcomes initiative. Much like our work forces today many charities are finding that the previously infinite pool of volunteers are aging, reducing the number of available hands to help. Charities and other organizations who rely on volunteers are also aware of the need for diversity in order to be able to meet their organizational goals, so don’t think you are too young (or too old) to contribute leadership skills, volunteerism is a fantastic way to challenge yourself and build capabilities.
Finding a mentor can also be very beneficial, someone to bounce ideas off of, to discuss concerns around the contradictory nature of decisions leaders often have to make to keep enterprises moving forward. A mentor is a great person to examine these tough decisions from different perspectives and to find your own leadership voice, complimenting your values and beliefs. Mentors can help navigate the loneliness aspect as you move beyond what your current role has to offer, but while you still need to work without an identified leadership mandate. Mentors also open up their networks to give you access to others who may be able to help inform your career path. Friends and family outside of work can also offer respite, supporting you in your career. You likely have people in this group who are leaders today and who you may be able to speak candidly with regarding leadership concepts. While having a mentor is great, getting many leadership perspectives is important to see things from different angles and different industries, which is important when building skills.
The pattern you want to avoid is one where your leadership voice becomes isolated, used for communication but not for deep collaboration, or one where you are the “final” word and you make decisions in isolation. It’s sometimes difficult (as the example in the opening paragraph highlights) to be able to share this journey with others and to find supportive voices and relationships that allow you to remain vitally aware of evolving leadership ideas, concepts, perspectives and needs. As your career path continues there are organizations that support leaders at the top (The Executive Committee and Young Presidents Association are but two examples), but these require participants to be at a certain level within their organizations to gain access to these valuable services. Individual coaching is mid-term option to help you press past leadership plateaus and actualize your full potential. What is clear is that as you continue, your leadership journey you need to build behavior patterns, awareness and relationships that support your leadership needs and keep the isolation at bay. Strong leaders depend on others, but are not dependent on others; it is a fine line, but an important one.
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Facebook or Linked In.