In leadership, isolation is an ever-present double-edged sword. There are merits to being isolated leader at times. But most often, the isolated leader will become terribly ineffective.
On one hand, as a leader, you must be comfortable with being alone. In order to maintain an effective influence over your subordinates, you simply cannot become “one of them.” There must be a level of separation, or else your authority will lose its teeth.
On the other hand, an isolated leader is an ineffectual leader. You have to master the delicate art of building relationships, connect with your people on a professional level, and earn their trust and respect. As with many areas in leadership, there is a fine line—a balance that must be struck.
When running a restaurant, 14-hour days, 6 days a week can play with your mind a little more than you think. As the general manager, I was more socially in-demand than ever before. With 80+ employees with 80+ different needs, coordinating with food suppliers, working with property management, communicating with the admin office, collaborating with other businesses and government entities, handling customer feedback, and not to mention maintaining contact with the disengaged owner, I had become emotionally detached from virtually every interaction I had.
While my phone was blowing up on a daily basis, I felt more isolated than ever. I saw so many people in the restaurant forming meaningful friendships, and my instinct, as a human, was to do the same. But I knew that was a line that simply could not be crossed if I was to maintain my influence. Many people assume it’s the long hours and the day-to-day grind that wears you down. But what many don’t see is the emotional toll leadership takes, which can wear you down just as much.
I needed to find a way to avoid emotional burnout. So I began to look for tiny opportunities to make meaningful, human connections without crossing lines of authority. I was able to find and utilize a few approaches, which you can (and should) use to lessen the effects of isolation, while still maintaining an effective distance and preserving your influence as a leader:
- Cultivate intra-organizational relationships. It’s lonely at the top. If you try to do it all alone, you will fail. But because not everyone will have the maturity and sensibility to manage a close relationship with the leader, you must identify a few trusted lieutenants who can be your eyes and ears within the organization. By doing this, you will be more effective in keeping an accurate pulse of your team while keeping a healthy distance, and you will also have an extra outlet to let off steam.
- Cultivate extra-organizational relationships. In other words, the relationships you have with your mom, your spouse, or your friends—double down on them because you will need to lean on them in the hardest of times. Even if you are overwhelmed with the job of leading, you must make this a priority, for your health and sanity.
- Make time to listen your subordinates. Again, whether you have the time or not, make the time to actually listen to those accountable to you. Often, you’ll find that the simple act of listening can do more to build trust and loyalty amongst your people than any other technique or strategy you might have in mind. But again, there is a balance you must strike in listening. Some people like to share more of their thoughts than others. So, if you spend too much time listening to certain people, you risk alienating the silent ones who look to you for direction.
- Create welcome diversions. In intense work like restaurants, everyone from top to bottom needs to let off steam every once in a while. As a leader, you must cultivate an image of a well-rounded leader. You cannot be full authoritarian, but you cannot be fully casual. Make room for people to let their guards down. Schedule after-hours meetups (or what they call in the corporate world, “team-building activities”). It is here that it is more acceptable for you to show your subordinates a more personal side. It also creates clearly delineated boundaries between sets of expectations.
- Get used to being alone. This is the brute-force method of dealing with isolation. There are some leaders who are much less in touch with their emotions and can handle (even prefer) being isolated for extended periods of time. If you’re like me, and you are a bit more in touch with your human side, your last resort is to just get used to it. Understand that there is a clear standard that must be set and a clear line that cannot be crossed between the leader and subordinate. If you blur the lines, you will introduce more problems down the line than you could ever imagine. Get used to it.
In leadership, you must master the delicate art of relationship building. Isolation can be your best friend and your worst enemy. It’s a tightrope you must learn to walk. Isolation keeps your subordinates at a distance so they don’t dilute your authority. But isolation also can take a steep emotional toll on you over time if you’re not careful.
Isolation is the ever-present double-edged sword. Get too close to the fire and you’ll burn yourself. Get too far away from the fire, and you’ll become cold, lonely, and out of touch. Find a way to strike the balance.
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