Is it always lonely at the top?

The age old adage is that you don’t get close to people you lead; that you have two different circles: a personal one, and a professional one, and never the two shall meet. If this is true, I’m in huge trouble. Out of the 40+ people I oversee in our offices, I lead 2 aunts, an uncle, 2 cousins, 3 of my closest friends, and too many other personal relationships to list. My entire office knew me as a brace-faced teenager, and has seen me do at least one, if not a million discrediting things, as I’ve grown to become the person I am today. For me, separating work and personal life isn’t ever really an option, and it definitely comes with its set of challenges. Since I’ve started leading I’ve encountered more than a handful of uncomfortable situations. Even as I write this, I cringe thinking about every time I have had to deny days off to close friends, or confront family members about their performance at work. Being completely honest, it is the hardest part of my job, and I said before, according to the conventional idea of leadership, it’s completely wrong. Generations before us believed that one should keep a distance from the people they lead and never get too emotionally attached. Yet, as I think about my obviously peculiar situation, I come to notice that the greatest leaders in the world were those that broke that rule. Leaders who changed the world, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, were also characterized as being people who actually cared. They were leaders who believed, like I do, that it actually shouldn’t be lonely at the top. 

Good leadership is inherently relational. To get the best out of the people you lead, you need to invest in them, spend time with them, and unless you are a robot you will develop feelings for them. We no longer live in the sixties, Mad Men era where bosses could call out orders and people mechanically perform them. Our generation needs to believe in the leader, and in the vision in order to be their best. And as leaders, it matters to us that they are their best because that makes us our best. Blurring the strict lines of professionalism and friendship is scary precisely because we innately know that we are not our best all the time, but we prefer not to be called out on it. I know that when I don’t give my best, I will be confronted by the people who work for me because they aren’t scared of me. And at the crux of that “lonely at the top rule” is a leader’s need to be feared so he or she can keep team members “in check”. We think that if people are too familiar, and they don’t fear us, they will no longer respect us, which isn’t necessarily true. In reality, fear does not equal respect. The fact that team members get to know you enough to tell you how they feel about certain issues, for example, doesn’t mean they don’t respect you or your work. The fact that they are too scared to tell you the truth even when you are wrong doesn’t mean they actually respect you. There is a difference.

One thing I’ve learned from working in my crazy hybrid half-family half office, is that it is ok to be seen as a human being, even when you are calling the shots. As much as I have tried to hide it, my team knows I make mistakes. They know I get angry, that I ramble, and that I’m not always the fairest of them all. But the advantage of having a personal relationship with them  is that they believe in me, so they stick with me anyway. I do my best to be honest and sincere when I have made a mistake, and they continue to give me their best because even when I have royally messed up, I’ve invested enough in them to be able to afford it.  In turn, I let go of the need to have people obey me at the drop of the hat. It may sound counter-intuitive, but people who obey without asking questions are not actually the people who will get you where you are trying to go anyway. You need people who think differently than you, they will compensate for your weaknesses. And as long as they do not cross the lines of disrespect, you need people who question you, because those questions can keep you from making mistakes. As much as people say “it’s lonely at the top”  people that have made it to the top are never actually alone. The people that have succeeded are those who have known how to harness their strengths, and staff their weaknesses. This means understanding that I don’t have to work as hard at correcting my areas of weakness if I can find strategic thinkers who will not do it for me, but do it with me. These are the people who I will take with me to the top. These are the people who are worth making lasting connections with, even when I am as aware as they are that things can get real awkward, real fast. Because for the sake of honesty, this is not all as bohemian as it may sound- there are times where I have found the need to be firm, and give clear direction, and arguments have ensued. My team knows I eventually have to do what I think is right, even when it’s not the best for them personally, and I can’t say that it hasn’t stretched them as much as it has stretched and discomforted me. But where there is a relationship, awkwardness can be forgiven and moved past. 

To understand all of this it is important to recognize that leadership is more side-to-side than up-and-down. It’s less about position, and more about influence. Up-and-down leadership is a style of leading where the leader is at the top, using people to go up and down the ladder of success for him or her. These leaders use their position and dominance to make people comply, which automatically puts distance between them and their team, hence the loneliness they feel at the top. Side-to-side leaders lock arms with their teams. They understand you can accomplish much more by inspiring people to be a part of your vision, in which case, a personal relationship is both unavoidable, and one of the best things you can ever experience. Because while it can be awkward, stretching, annoying, and stressful to balance, knowing that the people in your corner are actually in your corner is priceless. One of my favorite authors, John Maxwell says that “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care”, and in I have found that to be profoundly true. Whether we like it or not, leadership is about people. It’s about getting to know them, pushing them, and sometimes fighting with them, but appreciating the person you become when you grow not only in leadership, but as a human being. Leadership is not a way out, or a sidebar to the human experience, but with it, will come all of the pains, joys, and embarrassment of humanness. But isn’t it better that way? Isn’t it better to know that even while you work on your dreams, you don’t necessarily need to be alone once you get to them? I think so. So, to any of my friends-slash-family-slash-co-workers-slash-teammates who read this, thank you. Thank you for standing with me to accomplish something we both believe in, and allowing me to to lead the way, in spite of the fact that you know me, and that I know you. Thank you for making un-lonely at “the top”. 


Vanessa GraciaComment