LONELINESS IN LEADERSHIP
A poem I recently read summarizes the partnership of leadership and loneliness. (In part) “Leaders are called to stand in that lonely place between the no longer and the not yet. They will intentionally make decisions that will bind, forge, move and create history. Leaders are not called to be popular, nor to be safe. We are the ones called to take risks, change attitudes; risk displeasures; to gamble our lives for a better world.” (Mary Lou Anderson)
Leadership involves others, so it appears paradoxical to state that leadership and loneliness can often go hand in hand. As the poet expresses, leaders stand in the ‘lonely’ place between the now and the vision of what is to become. As Christian leaders we are given God’s vision and the conviction of ‘what might be’.
The leader’s role is to inspire and encourage others to fulfil His plan. As leaders, God’s Grace gives courage to be out in front, leading and stepping into this unknown.
For new leaders in particular the experience of loneliness can be surprising and unsettling especially if they misunderstand the definition of Christian leadership i.e. obedient service performed in love. A great temptation for leaders is to imagine themselves as better than the people they are leading; to be the wise one who has to have all the answers. They are often loved, admired and respected by many. Such accolades may give a false sense of one’s own importance. When the pressures of service, responsibility and suffering are prolonged, loneliness can ensue.
All leaders will encounter situations which need prayer and discernment before any decision is made. Once this process is completed a decisive course of action is decided upon. Considering our diverse natures there will be times when these decisions could cause conflict within the body.
The Harvard Business Review featured a story on how lonely it is to be a CEO in the Corporate World. We have the added difficulty in the Christian world of dealing with close friends, ‘our fellow brothers and sisters’. Friends can assume you will be ‘on their side’ when it comes to decision making and when this is not the case, your support system can begin to tumble. Those once considered friends are critical of you and you are hurt and begin to feel alone and isolated. Jesus experienced this in the Garden of Gethsemane. His friends didn’t understand the path He chose and couldn’t support Him by staying awake – then the majority of them abandoned Him. This pattern of misunderstanding and abandonment is sometimes reproduced in leaders’ lives, causing stress and loneliness.
The Peril Of Isolation
We’ll look at some areas in which loneliness can manifest itself in the life of a leader.
Leaders can inadvertently isolate themselves from God. ‘Working for God’ may become confused with ‘doing God’s work’, and the two can be very different. It is easy to make assumptions about what the Lord desires. Prayer is squeezed out by the business of ministry and the many other demands of life. It cannot be stressed enough that fidelity to daily prayer, scripture reading and Christian fellowship is essential.
Isolation from God can very quickly have leaders believe that the work done for God is the same as being with Him. This danger will have leaders lead people along their path rather than the Lords.
Leaders can isolate themselves from others. This tendency protects against disappointments, criticism and rejection. It’s easy to think “Why bother with consultation? It’s easier and quicker to do everything myself”. The outcome is very often poor decision making, negativity, fatigue and frustration.
Think about on the other hand, the confidentiality leaders must deal with, the enormity of confidential information which they are unable to share. People can ‘unburden’ themselves and feel relief. The danger is that leaders may shoulder the burden. This load can be particularly difficult when the information shared is scandalous in nature or based on unfounded accusations (Proverbs 18:8, 17; 1 Timothy 5:19). Leaders who carry this load alone can fall into depression or anxiety and can turn to exterior things, lean on addictions or look for validation from people for their comfort. How can we overcome the battle of loneliness?
Where possible, foster a healthy companionship with a person who has current or past leadership experiences relevant to yours or engage a Spiritual Director. Seek someone who understands confidentiality and the need for ‘wise counsel’. Equally have someone in your life who is outside your normal circle, someone with wisdom with who, you can trust.
Virtue of Humility:
Earnestly pray for the virtue of humility. Scripture makes it clear that “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Loneliness, isolation, fear hidden behind the façade of pride can deceive our hearts and cause us to fall into sin. Loneliness can lead us into the arms of ‘another’. Satan knows that instigating a sexual scandal with a Christian leader has devastating results. Illicit affairs, sexual misconduct and pornography are a reality in the Christian world in which we live today. Such scandal has the capacity to weaken the faith of believers as well as give non believers a reason to reject Christianity.” We must guard our hearts against these temptations. Seek out a good Spiritual Confessor.
Gift of Community:
The community of the faithful can help enormously in assisting leaders to avoid loneliness. A faith filled community are called to pray for leaders. The problems they deal with, temptations they suffer and stress they endure should compel us to intercede for them asking God to protect them. Take the opportunities to encourage and support them.
Leaders, remember we are a member of the body. We don’t have all the answers. Actively seek out the giftedness in others. Sharing the load is essential to our well being and effectiveness. Develop a time schedule for prayer, family, ministry tasks, the training of others and personal time. Prioritize that schedule and protect it.
God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory – St. Augustine
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ann Brereton lives in Tasmania, Australia with her husband David of 40 years. Ann’s ministry involves over 40 years in leadership positions including being the first woman National Chairperson of the Australian National Service Committee. She also served as a member of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services (ICCRS) situated at the Vatican. She is a mother to 4 sons and grandmother to 6 granddaughters, has lived as a Missionary in Uganda and traveled extensively as a Conference Speaker.