Leadership can be a lonely place

Photo by Evgeni Dinev Free Digital Photos

A colleague once shared a wise Chinese proverb with me.  Loosely translated it says ‘it is a cold and lonely place on top of a mountain’.  He was talking about leadership.

We need to make a clear distinction here between between leaders and leadership.  Leaders are not lonely people, per se.  On the contrary.  Leaders are people who are surrounded by other people and having to deal with a multitude of competing demands. To find a moment of solitude requires a leader to set clearly defined boundaries and utilise good time management skills.

Leadership, however, is something leaders and managers do, and is clearly an activity refined through practice and experience.  Leadership requires a leader or manager to engage in particular activities that will facilitiate specific outcomes.  For the most part, these activities cannot be achieved by the leader alone.  It requires active participation from others i.e. other leaders and managers, team members, employees and so on.

In a leadership role, the leader or manager is assigned to ensure that numerous projects or tasks are initiated or implemented; that they keep flowing towards completion; and that the intended various outcomes are reached in a timely, effective and efficient manner.  This involves attention to timelines, budgets, targets, structure, flow, resource management, project management, task co-ordination …..and other various functions.  This is the transactional aspect of leadership.  In other words : People, places and things in place? Check.  All necessary resources at my fingertips? Check.  Everything in order and ready to go?  Check. Right, let’s get the job done. With no further ado, these aspects of a leadership function could be clinically executed with ease, if it were not for an important consideration : the other side of the leadership coin.  The human factor side.  The side that involves the needs, desires and motivations of the people;  the context in which the people function and operate; and the dynamic interplay of relationships between people and context that is involved in moving a task, project, team or organization towards an intended goal.

Without people skills, the transactional functions of a leadership role can present a myriad of challenges, while the acquistion of people skills goes a long way towards making the leadership journey less of an uphill battle.

In a scenario where things are going smoothly and everyone is sailing cohesively in the same direction, leadership can feel like a group hug.   But when team members are pulling in opposing directions, when people and ideas are in conflict;  this is where leadership can potentially become a lonely activity.  At times like these, leaders can relate to the role the referee plays in important sporting events.   We expect the referee to be devoid of bias, not to take sides, to remain neutral, to always demonstrate fairness, to make good judgments and decisions, to act swiftly and decisively when team players breach accepted norms, to keep everyone motivated and happy, and importantly…..to keep the game moving like clockwork. Mistakes made under such pressure can be costly and are best prevented, and like the referee, the leader or manager carries this burden of responsibility from start to finish.

A leader is required to respond to challenges as they arise, and at times these challenges can be relentless.  At the end of the day, the leader is responsible for the successes and the failures of a task, a project, a team or an organization.  So, while leadership as an activity in itself, may not be lonely, the responsibility of leadership can be lonely in that the leader alone carries the weight.  Responsible leadership requires being able to respond to external demands, as well as internal demands; it requires an ability to lead, motivate, inspire and develop others; it requires an ability to articulate and communicate clear views and visions; to role model trustworthiness and authenticity; and to build supportive cultures that nurture supportive teams.

This is by no means an easy feat to accomplish.  What worked in the past, may not work in the future. What works for one team, may not work for another.  What works in one situation, may not work in another.   Unpacking contextual experiences and making meaning of leadership experiences and challenges can be achieved through one-on-one dialogues and conversations.  Every leader needs a trustworthy mentor, someone with whom they can engage with in reflective and meaningful communication.  Without such supporting and encouraging relationships, leadership can indeed at times, feel like a cold and lonely place on a mountain top.

Gaynor Clarke

B.Ed (Teaching), Cert Tertiary Teaching, PGDip Ed, MEd Leadership

Reach. Teach. Lead.

Reach Education Ltd


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