I will never forget that time when, after months of agonizing over whether or not to open up about how desperately lonely I was since I started working full-time at our local church. I was married, worked in a communal office, every single part of my life involved other people AND I was desperately lonely.
Lonely to the point of it becoming a mental health problem.
Lonely to the point where I was starting to really resent my job and question my calling.
Lonely to point where it was turning a soft, squishy empath & recovering people-pleaser into a cold-hearted, angry b*tch because “who the heck do you think you are to need love and support when I am not allowed to get any!!!!!”
I decided to reach out to one of my mentors for help and with every ounce of courage I could muster, asked if he had any tips for making friends (I couldn’t think of a more embarrassing question to have to ask as a 20-something).
His response floored me.
It motivated me to take action.
I left the coffee shop with an unwavering resolve to be the least loneliest person on our staff team.
To not settle for a life of isolation and dysfunction.
Want to know what that mind-bending gold nugget was?
Get ready… it will blow your mind too….
When i asked my mentor how to make friends and not be lonely in ministry he said:
“You don’t. Ministry is loneliness. The sooner you accept that the sooner you will feel better about it… here’s arbitrary and out of context scripture that’s helped me feel better about this ridiculously hopeless perspective on leadership” (Lauren’s sarcastic emphasis added).
That was my “OH HELL NO” moment.
I was literally going to go out there and make me some friends or die trying. That day I came face-to-face with my future with Leadership Isolation Syndrome if I didn’t choose a new path.
I am happy to report that I did, and I invite you to as well…
In a nutshell, Leadership Isolation Syndrome is what happens to us socially and emotionally as we begin to grow in the sphere of influence or leadership. Basically it’s feeling like you don’t have permission to show weakness, make mistakes or seek support when you need it because you have an obligation to be strong and well… perfect.
Leadership isolation syndrome is what happens when our unrealistic expectation of leaders becomes our unrealistic expectations of ourselves.
It’s actually extremely common, and almost normal… the only problem is that it's extremely unhealthy.
Human’s don’t magically outgrow their need for mutual support and connection when they enter into a season of leadership and influence… in fact, I would argue that they probably need it MORE… instead we are isolated by the expectations of others AND we isolate ourselves because of our own expectations and more than likely, the shame associated with not having it all together (GASP!)
What I want everyone reading this to know is that just because leadership isolation syndrome is common, it doesn’t have to be inevitable.
If our old ways of thinking about leadership and influence turn out to be a terrible idea, we have the freedom (and the responsibility maybe?) to update and change them.
So, why is Leadership Isolation Syndrome a thing to begin with?
My theory is that our culture strips leaders of their humanity in our perceptions of them. When we look at our leaders, our tolerance or margin for error, mistakes and failure for them is so tiny and we stop seeing them as human to some extent. In the same way, when we step into a leadership position, those same assumptions and beliefs we judge other leaders by, now start to apply to us as well.
So, the extent to which the culture around you and you yourself dehumanize leaders, is the same extent to which you will feel dehumanized as a leader/influential person. What we expect of our leaders will become what is expected of us (either by ourselves or others). When we see leaders more as machines instead of human, we often expect them to leave their human needs or human frailties/weaknesses at the door. The irony is however, that in order to be a healthy leader who leads others in a healthy way, you must first be a healthy human being.
More than ever, the world needs healthy leaders. We cannot afford to become dehumanized and neglect our human needs as a leader or person of influence.
Here are 3 things you need to look out for if you suspect you might be in dangerous water…
Phase 1: Feelings of Isolation and loneliness
The first real sign of Leadership Isolation Syndrome is that you often start to feel like NO ONE UNDERSTANDS YOU or what you’re going through.
You’ll find yourself thinking or saying, “Well no one understands how I feel” or “no one understands me”; “I can’t talk to (fill in the blank) about this, because they don’t understand what it’s like to be me”.
You start to feel that no one can possibly empathize with our ‘human-ness’ because we are in a different category of human as a result of our position of leadership/influence. You start to isolate yourself from other people because you increasingly feel separate from them.
Phase 2: Feelings of shame and guilt
The most characteristic sign of this phase is that you start to feel like YOU DON’T HAVE PERMISSION TO RECEIVE SUPPORT FROM OTHERS… or to have any human weakness.
What usually accompanies this is feelings of failure and shame. This is because, (as we discussed) we as a society expect superhuman or machine-like performance from our leaders and in turn we also expect this superhuman, or ‘perfect’ performance from ourselves and when we don’t live up to those expectations we feel immense feelings of shame and failure.
Beyond that, you may also feel that you can’t confess or admit to these feelings of shame or failure because that implies that, according to cultural standards, you’re a failure as a leader. Which is NOT TRUE.
Phase 3: Feelings of anger, judgement and resentment
Now when you hit this phase, you know you’re in trouble. When you start to feel angry, judgmental and resentful of other people and their neediness, weakness or humanity.
Just like in me, when I noticed my own loneliness getting carried away, and just like in my mentor - you start to feel angry that other people get support and that you don’t and you become increasingly unable to support & care for others when they need it.
I actually did a short video on steps you can take to combat Leadership Isolation Syndrome. You can watch it right here: https://youtu.be/e0h5d3qsoKI
Rising Above a Toxic Workplace by Gary Chapman (the Love Languages guy), Paul White (Language of Appreciation in the Workplace guy) & Harold Myra (Leadership Secrets from Billy Graham guy) was short and succinct.