Growing up I played competitive soccer. I was at best an average player that happened to be on a very good, successful team. Those were the days when winning league and tournament titles meant you actually received a trophy and not just a medal, which is more common in youth sports today. Much to my wife’s chagrin I still have 30+ trophies in a dusty box in our basement that I won’t let her throw away, along with too many newspaper clippings to count.
I was a defender but had a particular knack for taking penalty kicks (PK’s). One tournament experience sticks out in my mind. It was the Wolverine Tournament (Michigan), in the middle of a very hot summer. We made it to the final, but I was injured and unable to play. With five minutes left in overtime the score was tied and the coaches put me in, just in case time ran out and we had to go to a shootout. The first five shooters in a PK shootout had to be on the field at the end of OT, so I stood near the sideline for the last five minutes, unable to run or contribute.
OT ended in a tie and the shootout started. I don’t remember which shooter I was, but I do remember the feeling of walking from the midfield center circle to the PK spot, adjusting the ball, taking steps back and waiting for the referee to blow the whistle so I could shoot. At that moment the whole team was counting on me and all eyes looked in my direction. That shot was mine and no one else’s. I had to choose when, where and how hard to kick the ball. It was a lonely experience in the midst of a crowd.
I’ve had many opportunities to be a leader in my personal and professional life and I’ve worked for, with and around a lot of leaders. Being a leader is like perpetually being at the PK spot. In my experience, leadership is lonely. Whether in school, sports or our professional lives being a leader can be isolating. Sometimes the role dictates it, sometimes it’s self-imposed by the individual. When I talk to senior leaders about their roles, loneliness is never the first descriptor that comes up, but it is the one that when mentioned always results in relieved agreement that someone else realizes it. When I talk to those who aren’t (yet) in a leadership role there is often surprise at the notion that being a senior leader is lonely. The perception is that the senior leader role is not only the pinnacle of achievement in an organization but that everybody knows you, wants to talk to you and you’re constantly surrounded by people.
So why is leadership lonely?
Being a leader is a solitary endeavor, where successes are shared as a team, but failures are expected to be ‘absorbed’ by the leader. The role of a senior leader is high risk, high reward. They exist in a peculiar world with a constant stream of people around them, but no one else shares their responsibility, accountability and pressure.
Leaders can’t read minds, but we expect them to know everything, be everything and deliver everything. How can you, as a leader, always know your team’s biases, perceptions and frustrations? You can’t. It’s unreasonable to think you can and doing so doesn’t set you up for success. By the nature of the role there are barriers around senior leaders, some legitimate, others imagined.
The purpose of this article isn’t to solicit sympathy for senior leaders, rather to acknowledge a reality that unless you’ve been there you may not have previously known. Those who have been there can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Those who have yet to get there can at least have an awareness of what to expect so you’re not completely surprised when it hits you. The walk to the PK spot is something that must be done alone.