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Leadership is lonely: Are you up for it?


June 28, 2011
By Paul Hogendoorn


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Here’s a column that’s been brewing for, oh, let’s say 25 years. Leadership is lonely. And even if you are surrounded by a great team, you should never be too surprised when you find that you are alone.

Many years ago, my wife and I went out for drinks with another couple that we considered close friends. He was a minister, and she was the classic minister’s wife; but to us, they were nothing more than good friends. Just before our evening ended, she shared something that I knew she had long held deep inside. She confided in us that she never really knew who their friends were, and who was just being friendly. Although I could sincerely assure her of our genuine friendship, deep down inside, I could sympathize. I knew that feeling all too well myself: “Who are my friends, and who is just being friendly?”

Leadership was never something I sought out. Instead, leadership voids and opportunities somehow always managed to seek me out – in my community, in my church, and especially in my business life. As the second oldest child in a family of five kids, it was never a role I was naturally comfortable with. So, after 25 years of discomfort, please forgive me if I now shed a tear in my beer.

Over the years, I recall many circumstances where the “friend or just friendly” question entered my mind: after a fabulous dinner cruise with the whole company, when a spontaneous after-party was organized and everyone else was invited except me, because I am the boss; when only one person showed up for a summer barbecue, and I had a cooler full of beer and a fridge full of burgers; or when neither the company nor any of my co-workers sent flowers to my mother’s funeral.

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Most leaders I talk with have similar stories, and many have developed pretty healthy ways of coping with it. For me, though, being a “relational creature,” I found it more difficult than most; however, I did find comfort in the company of other business leaders – a group of people that I usually found an instant genuine connection with.

In the early days, I recall while visiting key customers, the company leader would often spontaneously invite me into his or her office and we would chat for an hour or so. I felt privileged to be mentored by these leaders of companies that were 10 (and sometimes 50) times larger than mine. Sometimes they were even my competitors.

What seemed quite spontaneous in those early years became much more intentional as my own company grew, and I began to assume the role of mentor myself, eagerly seeking out opportunities for spontaneous chats with other emerging leaders. (So here’s a quick word of thanks to Hank, Stan, Jan, Ray, Marvin and Tom, for all the spontaneous chats along the way!)

One of my favourite movies is “Captain and Commander,” in which a British sea captain pushes his crew to the limit during the Napoleonic War. The captain constantly has his eye on the horizon, focusing on the ship’s purpose, destiny and destination, (which is to track down and destroy a formidable French war vessel), while the rest of the crew focuses on specific things on the ship, like the rigging, the supplies, the food and the living conditions. Because the captain is looking forward (as he must), his vulnerable back is to his crew, and he needs to rely on a faithful “second in command” to protect it. Remember, any time a vote is taken on a ship that’s already at sail, it’s not a democracy – it’s a mutiny.

Much like most growth-focused companies, the leader needs a constant focus on the company’s destiny and relies on trusted individuals to look after the equally critical responsibilities delegated to them. But, like in the movie, this can strain even the strongest relationships to the breaking point. There are many times when the course towards the ship’s destiny appears opposite to the interests and concerns of the crew, even when achieving the destiny is in the best interest of the whole crew. Leadership requires input from the group; but leadership itself is not a group activity.

There are so many benefits and rewards that go along with being a leader, especially in business. A leader can make a difference in many people’s lives, creating opportunities, enabling futures, and inspiring or encouraging dreams. More than any individual perk or benefit, these are the rewards that I believe fuel true leaders, because great leaders don’t just lead, they serve the common good.

Leadership is a tremendous privilege, but be prepared, because it can be lonely.  

Paul Hogendoorn is president of OES, Inc. of London, Ont., and past chair of the London Region Manufacturing Council. He can be reached at phogendoorn@oes-inc-com.