Loneliness in leadership

August 30, 2021

As observed by Dr John Maxwell, a notable leadership expert, a leader who does not have followers is just taking a walk. So, leaders are never in want of crowd. But in spite of this, many leaders feel lonely. Leaders often suffer loneliness because they and those they lead are in two different worlds, see different things and are motivated by different factors. So, they make different choices, subject themselves to different disciplines and take different actions. These set the leader apart from the rest and foist loneliness on him. So, loneliness in leadership is not precipitated by distance from the followers, but difference from them. A leader who is like the follower cannot effect desirable changes in the follower.

Here are some factors that subject leaders to loneliness.

Vision sets the leader apart

Most people are motivated by immediate benefits; hence they are wont to sacrifice the future for the present. But leaders are not cast in that mould; they sacrifice present comfort for future benefits. That is why they are visionary. They are more focused on the future than the present. Since leaders and followers are motivated by different factors, moving at the same pace becomes herculean. So, while the followers are united by their longing for immediate gratification, the leader  is alone in his preference for denying himself and others immediate benefits to guarantee a better future.

It is the calling of leaders to be visionary, so they are future-focused. Leaders who are not visionary will be ordinary. When a leader’s focus is the past, he leads his people into retrogression. A leader who is focused on the present gets his people into stagnation but a leader who is focused on the future engenders progression for his people.

On October 31, 1959, the Western Nigeria Government, led by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, launched the Western Nigeria Television (WNTV), which was not just the first in Nigeria but also the first in Africa. The Western Region Government set up its own television station even ahead of France, a first world country. When the television idea was being mooted, many of Awolowo’s aides and associates must have wondered what was wrong with the man. They must have thought of what he wanted to achieve with a television station when there was no television set in the whole of the country. But not only did the television station set the region apart from the rest, it also created a wide range of opportunities which had hitherto been unimaginable for the people of the region.

When a leader is determined to lead the people to where they ought to be rather than where they want to go, he is most likely to suffer loneliness.

Leaders seek healing, not vengeance

Leaders are more concerned about the health of the whole system rather than the wellbeing of one part of the system or their personal aggrandizement. They would rather suffer wrongs than jeopardize the wellbeing of the organisation. On the contrary, most followers are driven by personal or parochial interests. While leaders are ready and willing to overlook wrongs to preserve the entity, many followers are ready to wreck an organization just to avenge themselves of a perceived wrong. So, when leaders preach love and forgiveness, their followers who don’t understand why they take that highway, turn away from them.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs established Apple Computers in 1976 with his friend, Steve Wozniak, but was forced out of the same company in 1985. When the company ran into troubled waters in 1997, Apple turned to Jobs to lead it again following the acquisition of NeXT, which Jobs had bought after exiting Apple.

On his return, Jobs did not go looking for those who had betrayed him to pay them back in their own coin but brought as many people as were relevant to the task at hand on board. He built a wholesome organisation that was not out to hack down any enemy. He even built bridges with competitors with a view to making Apple stronger. He had a pact with Microsoft, a competitor just to ensure that Apple got a fair share of the market.

Speaking on the collaboration with Microsoft which he mid-wifed in 1997 shortly after his return, Jobs said, “If we want to move forward and see Apple healthy and prospering again, we have to let go of this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose. We have to embrace a notion that for Apple to win, Apple has to do a really good job. And if others are going to help us that’s great, because we need all the help we can get, and if we screw up and we don’t do a good job, it’s not somebody else’s fault, it’s our fault. So I think that is a very important perspective. If we want Microsoft Office on the Mac, we better treat the company that puts it out with a little bit of gratitude; we’d like their software.”

Just as it was in the beginning when Jobs led Apple into great prosperity, so was it in his second coming principally because he did not set out to avenge the wrong done him by those who ousted him from the company he had co-founded.

But some of Jobs’ associates who had thought his return would be an opportunity for them to get even with those who had orchestrated his exit would have been grossly disappointed by the turn of events.

Seeking popularity

Leaders who know their onions do not seek popularity, they demonstrate candour by their commitment to doing what is right irrespective of whose ox is gored. This often sets them against the followers who hold back the truth because they want to be in others’ good books.

Candour is being brutally honest with people. While others can afford to be ambivalent, a leader, to save his organization from crumbling, must be candid. Unless people know what is wrong, they cannot do what is right. Unless they are confronted with the truth, they will continue doing what they have always done and continue to get the result they have always had.

Being candid is not about bringing down others, making them look ineffective, hurting or attacking them; it is showing them where they need to improve so that they can become better. Candour is about working to learn, grow and be more effective as a team. Without being candid with one another, neither learning nor effectiveness can take place and without the duo being in place, growth becomes difficult.

Candour helps both the leader and his team members to get better. Unless the leader gets to know the true position of the situation from his team members, his decisions will be defective. Similarly, the subordinates cannot get better unless the boss is brutally honest with his feedback to them. So, when an organisation imbibes candour as its culture, the only way to go is up.

Jack Welch, former Chairman of General Electric, describes candour as the biggest dirty little secret in business. According to him, “the absence of candour is the single largest roadblock keeping companies from being effective.”

He adds that companies must build an environment in which candour is encouraged, rewarded and integrated into the organisational culture itself because without candour, organizations lose “idea capital” and valuable information. “And worst by far, they continue to build business upon the lies and falsehoods they tell themselves, a house of cards that will eventually fall.”

When a leader is known for candour, he will be respected by others because they know he will be fair to all, but he will often travel alone because most followers love leaders they can manipulate; they love leaders who are swayed by emotions and sentiments. A dispassionate leader will often find leadership lonely because of his refusal to play the card of those who want to use him to achieve their own end.

Rigour of thinking

Leaders are change agents. This is because their thinking is different from that of the generality of the people. If a leader’s thinking is the same as those he leads, he cannot offer them anything different from what they already know. So, great leaders make it a point of duty to regularly exercise their minds and travel to the future in their imagination. This enables them to proffer solutions to problems that plague the people and birth ideas with the capacity to transform their organisation. Leaders don’t think impossibility, neither do they think difficulty. They understand that when their organization runs into a crisis everyone expects them to proffer a solution. Since they cannot afford to be caught napping, great leaders train their minds to go beyond the obvious to find the desired solutions.

To condition their minds for the task of solving puzzles and providing solutions, leaders engage in daily learning. They seize every opportunity to learn. They learn from nature, situations and other people’s experiences. They also take time to read books that have to do with their core responsibilities as well as those of general interests.

Subjecting themselves to the daily rigour of thinking and reflecting enables leaders to connect invisible dots and position them to be solution providers. It also enables them to be analytical in their disposition. These elevate them above the rest and confer on them the advantage of seeing what is not obvious to others.

The discipline of reading and rigorous thinking is way above many followers who would rather frolic than study and seek out pleasure than engage in reflection. Since the pursuit and focus are different, many of them are unable to flow with the leader and are unable to relate with him.

Bridging the leader-follower gap

Great leaders don’t leave their followers in the same state they met them; they always strive to get them as close as possible to their own level. So, great leaders usually work to bridge the leader-follower gap by doing the following.

Communicating the vision

A leader is never tired of communicating the vision that drives the organisation. The better the people understand the vision, the more they share the passion of the leader and the more they work to bring it to reality. So, leaders continuously communicate the vision not just to inform the followers but to transform them. The moment they understand the vision, their worldview will change and they will be able to see what the leader sees and join him in bringing the vision to reality.


Great leaders never stop investing in the training of their followers. The more the people know, the better they are able to relate with the leader and the more value they create for the organisation. Great leaders never view training as a cost, rather they see it as an investment. Some leaders are hesitant to commit resources to training their employees because of the fear that they may lose them to competitors after training them. But as stated by Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, the only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay. Training employees does not just improve the skills; it also improves the attitude to learning.

Transparency and care

Leaders are models even when they don’t bandy this about, especially if they are transparent, trustworthy and caring. Followers will not want to identify with leaders who they cannot trust or who does not care much about them. When leaders are transparent and caring, their followers are drawn closer both to learn from them and to lean on them.

Last line

The more a leader invests in his followers with a view to turning them to leaders, the less lonely his leadership journey becomes.


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