As a leader, power can make you lonely. And loneliness can cost you.
Be cautious with the Ring of Power
For most of his life, my father wanted to be either a Farmer or a Manager. We lived in the city for most of our lives, so dream #1 was out of the question.
I can still remember his disappointment when he was turned down for management, time after time. Then finally, he was picked. He loved the job for about five years until his rigid personality, his hatred for his boss and his love of whiskey got to him. The power made him into a different person. Just ask Bilbo Baggins. The more you wear the ring, the more it will wear on you.
Ask leaders about their mental health and they will find a way to excuse themselves and escape to the bathroom. Leaders may not talk about their mental health, but they are happy to talk about power. Google shows nearly half a Billion hits when searching for Power and Leadership. Representative hits include:
- The Role of Power in Effective Leadership
- Power and Leadership
- The Five Types of Power in Leadership
Leadership will impact your stress level, but one of the perks appears to be the power to achieve professional and personal goals. Unfortunately, articles about leadership power can be misleading because they ignore the potential dark side of the Ring of Power: Wearing it may change us and impact our sense of well-being.
Power can make you lonely
Leaders may not like to talk about their personal battles with mental health, but they will talk about loneliness. Inesi and Galinsky posted an article in the Wall Street Journal, the 5 Reasons Why It’s Lonely at the Top. In the article, they discuss power and how it can change the leader: what you think about yourself, your relationships, other people’s motives and our overall faith in humanity.
- Power can alter your beliefs about the intentions of other people. You suspect rather than accept.
- Power can affect your responses to the kind acts of others. You question whether kind acts are just that, or a product of mixed motives.
- Power can erode trust.You become less willing to trust others and avoid being vulnerable.
- Power can eat away at your commitment. You pull back, becoming more isolated and more cynical.
- Power can damage relationships in the very moments when they have the greatest potential to develop. You depersonalize and believe that the only reason people want to know you is because they want something. You constantly measure yourself against other people, other programs and other leaders.
If it is lonely at the top, we need to make sure our health insurance premiums are paid up, because loneliness hurts:
Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused by or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people. Judith Schulevitz
Unfortunately, there is no way to insulate yourself from the emotional labor of leadership. It’s not possible to protect yourself from every impacts because a good leader allows their work to affect them. It has to matter and that means that it may hurt. It’s when your experience doesn’t affect you that you should worry.
Wellness and the leader: How to lead well and be well
1.Ease into it. I have over 20 years experience as a counselor, but I usually don’t open a conversation with “Hey, I’m feeling depressed today.” Sometimes we need to talk about depression or anxiety, but these words communicate only a fraction of our experience. I often begin with something like, “I’m feeling a little off right now…” or “I have been dealing with low energy all week.” It may help to ease into the conversation.
Your team may have a difficult time speaking directly about their mental health. They may be reaching out for support but don’t have the words. For more on this see my post Leading When You Are Unwell, Part I.
2.Be thin skinned, it may just save your life. You will face enormous pressure to develop a thick skin, but please, DON’T! The more thick skinned you are, the more distant you become from yourself and from those who truly care about you.
3.Be vulnerable. This means talking about your emotions rather than just your Emotional Intelligence. Programs and concepts can be helpful to provide language and structure, but they can never replace being real. Your strength is shown by your vulnerability, not by your venerability. We love Superman not because bullets bounce off of his chest (honestly, that would be cool), but because his strength is not diminished by his very real feelings of grief or pain.
4.Get alone and listen. Successful and resilient people have a regular spiritual practice. What do you do to quiet your mind? Some examples are prayer, meditation, exercise, creative writing, journaling, reading a good book or reading the sacred.
5.Create a mess so that you won’t be a mess. In the beginning we make a mess and then the mess makes us. Creating is a way of coping and self-expression. It may involve painting or traditional art, or working with wood, knitting, writing, poetry, gardening or dancing. It is about the experience, not the end product.
6.Leave your desk and walk. Studies show that if we spend our day working on the computer, we begin to talk to our screens. (Okay, I made that up, but it’s true.) Talking to your computer is crazy. It just is. Too much screen time is not healthy for your body or your mind, it can impact our blood circulation, our mood, our ability to concentrate and our ability to have good ideas. We talk more when we leave our desk, and we burn more calories. Both of these are good things.
7.Hire more women. Promoting more women into leadership may help change how we talk about our mental and emotional health. Some men avoid talking about their feelings, and therefore, their mental health. Men may be more comfortable talking about things that need fixing and how busy we are, rather than talking how we feel about things that need fixing or how busy we are. I have written previously about the women’s leadership gap. Women comprise 47% of the US workforce but they account for only 5% of the top leadership among the best US companies.
Unfortunately you cannot turn off leadership power. How do you keep the Ring of Power in it’s place?
Power may make you lonely, but at the Good Men Project, we are having the conversation that no one else is having. Lean in, because we have room for you here. The conversation continues in the comments, hope to see you there.