By Chris Brown
To this day, it’s one of my loneliest memories in leadership.
The pressure and anxiety I felt to meet payroll for the upcoming payday was suffocating. I had checks that needed to go out to our staff, and the bank account was empty. I didn’t expect any money to come in, and I dreaded calling our staff to let them know their checks would be delayed.
I felt isolated and lonely, and I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. No one could possibly understand the pressure I felt. There was no one I could just hang out with and not feel like I had to be “on.”
Have you ever felt that way? Isolated and alone in your leadership? Or maybe burned out and buried under the weight of high expectations with no one to turn to? Whether in business or ministry, the isolation of leadership can be a heavy weight to bear.
Back then, I was still learning the difference between those moments of loneliness that every leader experiences and the trap of living that way all the time. Being lonely at the top is a choice, not a mandate.
When moments of loneliness begin to stretch into seasons of loneliness, I have learned to ask myself two questions that redirect my perspective and remind me that I’m ultimately responsible for keeping myself in community.
Who is mentoring me?
Most leaders start their careers as the mentees, the ones being coached. Many people pour into our lives in the beginning; but as we grow and earn more responsibility, we become the mentors and coaches. In this stage, we may think we no longer need someone pouring into our lives this way. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We all need someone to speak into our lives, in every season. When we face higher-stakes, higher-pressure leadership challenges, it’s important to have someone who’s walked that path before and can offer a listening ear and solid advice.
They also hold us accountable. When we have that person in our lives, we know they’ll tell it like it is. We can be real, and they can be honest. That can be painful at times, but it creates trust in relationships. It also challenges us to be intentional about our actions because we know we’ll be reporting back to someone.
If we have been a good friend and leader up to this point, we should have several options for a mentor in our life. Ask yourself:
If I don’t already have one, who could be my mentor? Who is speaking truth into my day-to-day ministry life? Who can I trust? Who knows more about this than I do? Who has already arrived where I feel called to go? Who believes in me?
When you turn to a trusted mentor instead of making isolated decisions, you’ll have a coach on your side who can offer encouragement and support when you feel like you have nowhere else to turn.
Am I leading collaboratively?
Can you hear a pin drop every time you walk into a room? Does anyone ever approach you for conversation or do they hesitate and wait for you to initiate? You may be the king of the hill, but the hill is no fun if you’re there alone.
Sensing that kind of tension may be a sign that your leadership style is creating distance between you and your team. And true leaders don’t wait around for that kind of problem to solve itself. They make the first move.
Try to be more intentional about relating to your staff members person-to-person, not boss-to-employee. In fact, ditch those terms altogether and use “leader” and “team member” instead. Ask them about their marriage, their kids or their hobbies. And then listen to their reply.
If you think you’re too far above your team to be friends with them, you’re needlessly isolating yourself. You’re keeping the very people who could become your biggest supporters at arm’s length.
A huge part of this problem may be trust—or, more specifically, a lack of trust. When your team doesn’t trust you, they’ll pull away. When they feel like all they can say is “Yes, sir” or “Yes, ma’am,” you won’t see much healthy dialogue or productivity. You’ll wonder if it’s just your imagination that you’re the only one really “present” at meetings.
When you create a culture where your team feels comfortable offering appropriate suggestions, you’ll never have to fear their reaction when, say, you have to make a really painful phone call about a paycheck. Your team should see you as a leader who will inspire them, not a boss who will lord over them.
In leadership, loneliness will visit from time to time, but don’t let it move in. The health of your team, your church, your family and your own self will be the better for it.
Chris Brown is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host, pastor and dynamic speaker carrying the message of stewardship and intentional living nationwide as a Ramsey Personality. Available on radio stations nationwide, Chris Brown’s True Stewardship provides biblical solutions and sound advice for questions on life and money. Chris and his wife, Holly, live in Franklin, Tennessee, with their three children. You can follow Chris online at Stewardship.com, on Twitter and Instagram at @ChrisBrownOnAir, or at facebook.com/ChrisBrownOnAir.