The loneliness of the long distance runner
Leaders at the peak of their careers
I have the privilege of working with some very high achievers in a variety of fields and functions. I meet them at different points in their careers – sometimes they’re on their way to the top, sometimes they’re at the top, sometimes they’re on their way down from the top.
The pressure of expectation
Leaders who are at the peak of their careers – while anticipating or indeed experiencing the fulfilment of achievement – rarely tell me they passionately love their jobs. They are frequently lonely, isolated and lacking the safety of honest conversations. They feel deeply the pressure of expectation: the higher they have flown, the higher and more intense the organisation’s expectations of them. There are frequently very high expectations in the push towards achieving ever-higher targets, with the corresponding threat of personal, career or commercial penalties if those targets are not reached.
Leaders who focus on their own careers
Some leaders hunker down and focus almost exclusively on developing their own careers, sometimes to the exclusion of those they lead: they make it their mission to develop their unquestioning allegiance to the boss, in the belief that gaining approval from that quarter will enable the next step on their own career ladder. In the process they may leave behind those they lead, who therefore miss out on the engagement they need from their boss in order to fulfil organisational agendas, especially when challenges arise. So the loneliness is transferred downwards.
Rapid promotion can mean less personal clarity
Other leaders may be recognised through rapid promotion, finding themselves dealing with increasingly complex pressure, making significant decisions in climates of considerable uncertainty, but with inadequate opportunity amid the intensity of that pressure and complexity to have safe conversations in which to maintain or create clarity about what they really want to do.
Confidence and courage may retreat
Ironically, confidence may be impacted for the worse. This can happen when the individual has been recognised as a high achiever, but in developing their impact through collaboration, they may diminish qualities such as courage, and may find themselves reluctant to bring forward fresh, brave ideas. They may even be fearful of their own success, which could disrupt the anticipated path to the organisation’s success.
The sacrifices in reaching the peak
And, of course, there are those who have made huge sacrifices – personal, emotional and physical – to get to the dizzy heights. At a certain point they admit to themselves the toll that this has taken but they are too depleted to engage with the choices they could otherwise give themselves.
The search for self
At some point for leaders in all such situations, the need and search for ‘self’ becomes imperative. They need to rediscover – or indeed discover – themselves in order to articulate their choices and manage those choices. They realise they can reduce the loneliness first by articulating and sharing ‘what is’ with a compassionate yet challenging coach with whom they feel safe, connected and trusting, and who has no vested interest in their outcomes. As a result of that, they can make a greater connection with themselves, acknowledge what they need, establish a different kind of connection with their environments and their relationships, and find personal peace – a coaching outcome which increasingly clients are telling me they value and aspire to.
Personal peace can mean loneliness has been left behind, and a greater sense of possibility has been embraced. This can offer a firm base from which to build the next steps in a career of high achievement.