As the leader of a congregation, I remember heading home after meetings feeling like I was going it alone. I would think that no one else seemed to get the whole picture the way I did. I felt frustrated that others had a more narrow or short-term perspective than I did. Leadership can be lonely. Facing that loneliness means confronting several paradoxes that are part of the leadership challenge.
1. Relationships are vital to leadership, and you must stand alone as a leader. Leaders must pay attention to relationships all the time. We need to make a real connection with the people we lead, with integrity and out of our true self. At the same time, no one else stands in the role we do, and that can be lonely. Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in Leadership on the Line make the point that people do relate to our role as much as they do to us. When we leave the role, for many people the relationship is not the same, if it exists at all. And while we are in the position of leader, we need to recognize that our relationships with people in many ways are based on our role.
2. Openness and collegiality are usually beneficial, and leaders need to keep their own counsel at times. Prolonged secrecy and rigid hierarchy do make it harder for organizations to function well. But there’s also a time to keep quiet, and just do what is necessary. For example, if you need to take a stand with a difficult staff member, or even fire them, you may need to make a statement. But overexplaining or bringing too many people in on the process can get in the way of a good decision. When we make a decision and move forward, saying too much can be as much of a problem as saying too little.
3. The primary burden of leadership falls on us, and we need to share the anxiety of leadership appropriately and strategically. The person at the top does bear a responsibility that no one else can carry, that he or she cannot escape. As Harry Truman understood, “The Buck Stops Here.” We cannot delegate that. But if we carry all of the anxiety for the future of the group, we’ll do ourselves in and limit the growth of others.
Sometimes we need to say, “I’m not sure what we’re going to do about this.” Or, “When I’m gone, this problem is still going to be here.” Or, “I’m really worried about this area.” We can thoughtfully consider questions such as: who else needs to share this burden? Who has some resources to think about the future, or who has the potential to grow in that direction? Where does the responsibility lie, besides with me? We don’t evade the real responsibility of leadership, but we don’t carry the whole thing on our shoulders, either.
These paradoxes will never be resolved: the need for relationships vs. our aloneness in leadership; the balance between openness and thinking our own thoughts; and the unique burdens of leadership vs. the shared burdens. Paying attention to them on an ongoing basis will help us maneuver over the bumpy road leaders often face.