Leadership Is a Lonely Gig

Leadership at higher levels of organizations is lonely.  Great leaders are motivated by making the right decisions for the greatest good of the organization and teams they lead.  They find support systems, emotional and spiritual fulfillment, and validation outside of the work setting through family, friends, and external coaches/advisors.  They do not allow personal attachments and individuals or pet projects influence their objectivity and balance.  This requires leaders to regenerate and develop a balance in their lives where work and productivity are important, but not the only source of self-validation and motivation.

There are, however, many leaders who put a great deal of focus on popularity and relentless consensus-building as hallmarks of great leadership.  Yes, as I have written in previous chapters of this blog, great leaders value and look for the collective intelligence of their teams prior to making important decisions.  However, great leaders also carry anchors and compasses that are authentic, visionary, and at times unconventional.  If the leader is overly concerned about achieving consensus amongst all stakeholders and being liked, blessed, or recognized, he will overly compromise.  Imagine a world where our greatest visionaries were focused on popularity.  We would not have many of the disruptive innovations that we enjoy today such as computers, the internet, electricity, and cars.  In the end, after perspectives and opinions have been shared, the leader finds himself in the lonely place of making a decision with the best information at hand, using their intellect and intuition, and hoping for some timely luck. Yes luck.  Look up the greatest innovations and some of the highest impact decisions ever made, and invariably there are situational elements that had a direct impact on their success or failure.

There is a fascinating video clip of President John F. Kennedy and his cabinet debating their response to the intrusion of the Russians into Cuba and their plans to install nuclear missiles.  In this clip, JFK listens carefully to the points of views of both sides.  The hawks, led by General Curtis Lemay and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy, urged retaliation and war.  On the other side, a more cautious approach represented by the blockade was advocated by Robert Kennedy and the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara.  In the end, JFK had to make one of the most important decisions of the 20th century.  At that moment, he was not concerned about pleasing everyone on the cabinet, or being reelected, or how some of his long-time friends and relationships would regard him.  In the end he had to weigh the facts, use his intuitive sense regarding the likely reactions of the First Secretary of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev and his team, stand behind his beliefs, and make the decision that would benefit the greatest number of people. This genre of leadership with a backbone is contrasted with the manner in which some CEO’s and their senior teams make decisions. Their focus is on the short-term reactions of Wall Street, their own short-term wealth and prosperity, and there is seemingly less concern about the longer-term impact of these decisions on the organization. A case in point is the recent safety and quality issues that have resulted in massive financial loss for the pharmaceutical and healthcare organizations.

This quote captures the essence of leadership with courage and backbone:

 “A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He doesn’t set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the quality of his actions and the integrity of his intent. In the end, leaders are much like eagles… they do not flock; you find them one at a time.”   – Unknown

What examples can you share of leaders you know that found themselves in that lonely place and had to make the right decisions? What happened/how did it turn out? What lessons do you think we can take away?


About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: