Beware Of Loneliness as You Manage and Lead


Loneliness is a powerful shadow that clouds our judgment.

By John O’Sullivan and Michael VanBruaene

It’s common for managers and leaders to feel alone. When we make decisions, particularly those for which there is no easy answer and the outcome is uncertain, we gather information, discuss the issue with colleagues and weigh alternatives. And depending on the nature of the decision we may have to be alone with our thoughts to make the decision. However, feeling lonely is different than being alone. When we experience loneliness there can be harmful repercussions to our organizations. Loneliness is a signal that it’s time for introspection.

Being Alone

Being alone as a decision-maker comes with the job. It’s normal and in some situations desirable. Even though you’ve successfully gathered a great team, many decisions require that you, and you alone, make them. Not someone else.

The fact that you’re making the decision means that it’s likely an important decision, otherwise someone else could make it. You sit in the chair and there are no others of equal standing in the organization, regardless of how non-hierarchical it is, to make this decision. You are alone, and that is as it should be.

Feeling Lonely

Loneliness is a powerful shadow, a cloud that envelops us, significantly affecting how we perceive our work place and colleagues, and even our family. It can settle upon us with a feeling of estrangement and alienation, of being adrift from our normal routine and organizational position. We might feel that we’re no longer important to the organization.

When we’re lonely it’s common to feel fatigued or distracted, experience self-doubt or feel we’re not worthy of our position. It can be a likely culprit when we’re feeling inordinately impatient with just about everything and everyone. And sometimes we just feel creepy and uneasy about ourselves, our life and our work.

Loneliness can occur at just about any time, but tends to be more prevalent during times of crisis or when there’s an inordinate amount of day-to-day pressure on the organization whether from within or without. It can also occur when we’re considering a departure from our organization and we sense that a significant aspect of how we see ourselves will unravel.

Failure to confront loneliness can result in a loss of perspective and presence, two of the most important attributes of a credible manager and leader. Our difficulty affects others and the entire organization for which we are responsible. When we feel lonely we become disconnected from our responsibilities and just go through the motions of work. Our effectiveness as a manager/leader suffers.

Doing Something About Our Loneliness

Loneliness has to be recognized and addressed. We can’t always get past it easily. Our tendency too often is to “soldier on,” believing that we’ll get past the loneliness and all that it entails by simply working. We focus primarily on specific and relatively easy tasks and decisions, and not the important, and more difficult, decision-making. Whether it’s a relatively simple or difficult decision it can be impaired by the pervading shadow of loneliness.

Soldiering-on isn’t the answer; it just makes things worse. The antidote to loneliness lies with introspection, looking deeply inside ourselves and considering how we got to this place. And then we need to get help and that requires that we open ourselves to being vulnerable.

Vulnerability, an important manager/leader attribute, can help us keep loneliness at bay or move us out of our loneliness. By opening ourselves to being vulnerable we position ourselves for deep discussions about our circumstances with others, normally trusted colleagues, friends and family, or perhaps a professional counselor. These discussions are about facilitating an understanding of our loneliness and figuring out a path forward. Usually not an immediate solution but a starting point for resolving it. Ideally, we should engage in this type of discussion on a regular basis, not just when we feel lonely.

Being grateful is also a good antidote to loneliness. Gratitude takes us beyond our loneliness to see all that’s positive in our lives and the good possibilities before us. Gratitude gives us a context for restructuring our mindset. A gratitude practice could begin with listing people and things for whom and for which we’re grateful, and pausing for a moment to acknowledge how that gratitude makes us feel. This helps us maintain our perspective and keeps us from feeling that we, and our problems are not the center of the universe.

Do you have basic guiding principles for your decision-making? As managers and leaders we may lose sight of what should be our important guiding principles for decision-making. Then we’re susceptible to not being grounded and centered in our work. We don’t have a firm base from which to carry out our most important decision-making and activities. Our focus becomes limited, narrow, not considering the big picture and what really counts for our organization.

Thus, it’s important to have good and strong principles in place to guide our decision-making. These principles are usually along the lines of considering what is best for our customers or community we serve. And yes, think in terms of “serving.” These principles become the basis, and anchor for knowing that when we make a decision it’s the best decision that can be made, due to the sound principles guiding us.

If your organization’s mission statement, or statement of values or culture, are good, they must be included in your guiding principles for decision-making. If you have a personal mission statement, it should also be considered.

Am I alone with my decision-making too much of the time? While it’s part of the job to be alone with important decisions, it can become too much of a normal circumstance. We have to be aware of this possibility and prevent it from occurring. There are many ways to do this. They can range from thoughtful, well planned staff meetings, to having lunch with staff, colleagues and friends; or simply walking around in your organization and talking with employees — about what they’re working on, their families, or something that occurred over the weekend. The objective is to be connected and interacting with people.

We can also manage loneliness by other types of activities including a vacation or long weekend, meditation, walking in nature, or going out with family or friends.

We aren’t the first culture and age to recognize the impact of loneliness. Based on a Northwest Native American Tradition, we like this poem by David Waggoner that reflects on what an elder might say to someone who feels lost and asks “What do I do when I am lost in the forest?” It’s helped us in our work and personal lives.


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you

Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are. You must let it find you.

The shadow of loneliness is always nearby, and like the powerful stranger in this poem we need to recognize and respect it. There’s an opportunity for personal growth. Any time we face an internal emotional challenge and resolve it we are changed forever, not just as managers and leaders but as productive and thriving humans. Our legacy as managers and leaders depends on how we handle these challenges.

See our prior articles.

“You Can’t Lead Without Managing.

In this article, we posit that “leadership” is a misused and misunderstood term with little mention of the importance of good management. There is a partiality towards leadership, even for basic supervisory and management situations; with statements to the effect that leading is more desirable than managing. In the workplace good management and good leadership are essential, and most of the time within the same position. Good management results in good leadership.

“Do You Have The Essential Credibility To Successfully Lead And Manage?

Credibility is a key factor in your success as a manager and leader. If you’re not credible, you won’t be respected, making it impossible to achieve your potential as an effective manager, and leader. Be aware — daily — of how your behavior affects your co-workers and others who are relevant to your work. Be deliberate and strategic in choosing your behavior. There are four essential management and leadership behaviors that we should consciously engage in to build and sustain credibility. They are: Perspective, Presence, Vulnerability, and Gratitude.

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