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The lonely leader and compassion fatigue

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
3 min read
The lonely leader and compassion fatigue

Over the years, a common theme I’ve seen leaders across the industry talk about is the phenomenon of the lonely leader.

Most leaders I talk to either feel or have felt at some point in their career, especially early in leadership journey, that their experience as a leader is quite lonely.

The logic is quite simple. As a leader, there is a lot that you’re balancing. The combination of the people, vision, strategy, and execution responsibilities are sometimes greater than you can handle. In leadership, however, there is a level of “game face” that you keep on for your team and a level of discomfort with sharing these concerns with your own leadership team. It’s what one leader I talked to called the “shit sandwich”.

Many leaders, including myself, feel like there is a limit to the levels of responsibilities you can share with the team and a limit to the level of what might sound like complaining that you can share with the leadership.

To make things more interesting, you’re in many ways a sounding board for many people in your organization. Your compassion and ability to listen to your team are core to your ability to build a strong, psychologically safe, and high performing team. You are helping others to move forward.

In my conversations, many leaders feel like the combination of needing to help others and provide that level of compassion on demand while not being able to always receive that level of compassion back is at the root of what many call: compassion fatigue.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Over the years, I’ve felt this way too on too many occasions. Here is what helped.

Put yourself out there

Especially early on in my career, there was always this feeling that appearing perfect or that making sure things appear to be perfect was part of my responsibilities. Keeping the team focused and happy meant ensuring that they’re shielded from all and any issues happening. I was wrong. I realized that this is actually harmful to both for my ability to lead and their ability to grow.

Putting that perfect act on forces your team to do the same even if you don’t want it. If you’re doing perfect all the time, it must be true that they need to do the same. They don’t. They can’t.

There is still a lot that you cannot share directly with your team. You still shouldn’t complain for the sake of complaining or provide a gloomy picture of reality. Keeping teams motivated is still as important as ever. You also shouldn’t swing the pendulum in the other direction completely by sharing every single problem or making every problem you are facing theirs. Shielding the team from some of what you’re facing to focus continues to be, at some level, a good thing.

However, being more transparent about the issues the team or the organization is facing or the ways by which you’re working to improve things you either know or suspect are broken offers a more true picture of reality that they can relate to.

Transparency brings a level of comfort to leaders because it allows them to be more true about what’s happening vs. feeling the responsibility of keeping things perfect even when they aren’t. It also provides a level of growth to the team, especially your direct leadership team, because it offers a behind the scenes view of reality that they can deal with. It also provides them with the permission to share with you the problems they’re facing or how some of the problems you’re facing are affecting them.

Be more transparent with your leadership team

Just like your team should expect more of you, you should expect more of your leadership team. Not all leadership teams are the same and this doesn’t work in every organization but one of the most important aspects for me in my ability to live a far more sane version of reality is my ability to be completely honest with my leadership team.

This isn’t easy and most of the time, it’s a function of the leadership team you’re a part of. I get it. However, on many occasions, your assumptions about what they’re okay listening to or working through are very different than theirs. Being honest about your expectations helps.

Find your pack

This is probably the first and most important step which is a fitting way to end this article. Find your pack. Find a support group in your field of leaders and professionals who are going through the same challenges you’re going through and understand the reality of your work. This is different than therapy and it is different than a great group of friends. Finding leaders in the industry that are facing similar challenges allows you to be more detailed about what you share with the expectation of them not only understanding it or empathizing with it but also their ability to provide what might be real insights into solutions.

Support groups are different in different industries and it might take you a few tries to find one. But if there’s one thing you should do, find that support group.