And yet, the many downsides of leadership are rarely talked about. Leaders are expected to be perfect role models (just look at our moralistic expectations of our politicians) and they often get blamed (and many lose their jobs) when things go wrong.
Most of all although it’s not as often acknowledged, leadership can be extremely lonely.
Leaders as targets and scapegoats
Leadership is lonely because it almost inevitably entails becoming an object of distrust, dissatisfaction and satire. Of course, we don’t think about this much when we’re racing to get to the top propelled forward by the idea that we’ll finally be given the admiration and respect we’ve always deserved. But even those who are widely recognised as the very best leaders tend to serve as lightning rods for resentment and discontent in some form or another. If you become a leader, people will memorise your faults, real and perceived. Your followers will collectively find comfort and build solidarity discussing your shortcomings with one another. And they won’t feel bad about this--because, after all, you’re the leader, and surely you can take it.
It’s tempting to tell ourselves that we’ll be different than previous leaders: highly accountable, liked by all, conscious of how others view us. Although with care and practice we can usually do better than those before us, the phenomenon of targeting and scapegoating the leader will always remain to some degree.
The same thing happens when you’re a parent. Those of us who are parents know that before we had children, we had an idea of the sort of parent we’d like to be. Perhaps we confidently imagined that we would be cooler than our parents, less prone to grumbling about trainers on the carpet, and certainly in possession of better taste in music... Our children (we imagine) will see us as sympathetic, unconditionally loving and wise.
But inevitably our children (no matter how much they love us) will find things to mock and resent us for--because children need to be able to separate themselves from their parents. It’s healthy for them to practice independence through scorn and rebellion. For this reason, a teenager who is entirely devoted and obedient at all times is a bit suspect (not to mention rare)--and a workplace of consistently respectful and admiring employees should be as well.
Of course, as a leader, even if you know this, the mockery and criticism of others will still probably hurt. You’ll feel misunderstood. And generally you won’t be able to clear things up or switch course, because you will need (for the sake of the company or project) to keep doing many of the things you know people dislike. It might simply be part of the job, or you may find that things are not so easily alterable once you’re behind the wheel.
Leaving Others Behind
As difficult as it may be to be criticised and mocked, leadership is often lonely for an even more painful reason: over time, leaders often have to leave their peers behind.
It’s a bit like immigration. Immigrants tend to recognise the scale of the decision. They have to sell everything and their relationships will be fundamentally changed forever. It’s hard for them to go back. And they’ll never know what it would have been like if they had stayed.
There are many other big steps in life like this, decisions which take us to a new world, never to return. But usually we aren’t as aware how much of an impact these decisions are going to have and the sacrifices they are going to require, until we’ve already made them.
To become a leader is to undergo a change of this kind. You might have to pack away your wicked sarcasm, play serious when you really feel like kicking back and joining in the fun, or appear uncaring in order to be firm. For many of us, it can feel unnatural to be this distant from people. We’ll miss those we used to work closely with--and we’ll have to go on without the same kind of camaraderie and support.
For those of us contemplating leadership, or those already in a leadership position, it’s important to be able to recognise these difficulties and accept them for what they are. Feeling lonely is not necessarily a sign that we are a bad leader; it doesn’t mean that leadership is not for us. It’s simply part of the price we pay for taking on a very serious responsibility. If we can keep this in mind, we may be better able to cope with the inevitable challenges that leadership presents--and fully embrace its opportunities.