The leadership struggle most people never acknowledge

June 26, 2020

Liza RobbinsBy Liza Robbins.

Last week there was a riveting interview in The Sunday Times magazine.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, confessed that he had found the Coronavirus lockdown the hardest challenge of his personal and professional life – specifically “in relation to the loneliness.”

“For eight weeks, I didn’t leave, literally, my home… I thrive on company, on being out and about. And I was struggling… There are days when I’m not providing proper leadership… I felt fragile.

“Because being a leader is lonely. And I’ve struggled. I also realised I should feel confident talking about it. I shouldn’t feel that I’ve got to be this alpha male who demonstrates his virility by being superhuman. I’ve got to be honest because, you know, I have struggled.”

Over the past few months, there has been widespread recognition that lockdown has affected the emotional and mental wellbeing of vulnerable groups – like children cut off from their peers, elderly people who are shielding alone, and people who may be trapped with abusers.

But this is the first time I’ve seen anyone address the toll that lockdown can take on people who are in leadership positions.

People do not expect leaders to suffer during times like this.

You’re expected to be the strongest of the pack – resilient and emotionally robust.

In fact, your teams lean on you for emotional support and for consideration during this difficult time (which may take its toll on you too)!

You are taught to recognise the signs that other people are struggling to adjust to this new way of working…

…But behind the scenes, you – or your peers – may be struggling too.

Leaders in firms are often ‘big’ personalities, who enjoy interacting with others and thrive on those interactions. They derive their energy from bouncing around the office talking to everyone around them… And from meeting and nurturing clients.

Even when this is not the case, people (on the whole) reach leadership positions because they are influencers and communicators.

It is precisely all these things which are lost when your office environment disappears. The casual interactions which previously fed your spirit disappear overnight.

Just like Sadiq Khan, you or other members of your leadership team may be feeling isolated… Out of sorts… Lost… Depressed… Struggling…

…But this is rarely acknowledged or addressed, although this not only affects you personally but by extension, your entire team.

What’s more, because the Coronavirus restrictions have been in place for so long, in many places attention is moving on.

In the “early days” there was a lot of discussion around the implications of remote working, but by this stage we are simply expected to be used to it…

Yet it can take months for the real implications of working alone day in, day out to sink in – and for the effects to show.

So what should we do about it?

First, let’s acknowledge that many people in leadership positions may be struggling right now – and be alert to the signs, both in yourself and in others.

This is not something which affects only those who are “vulnerable” – it can affect everyone, at every rung of the office ladder, including those at the very top.

Second, let’s accept that it’s okay not to be okay.

This can be a difficult admission for many leaders – as Sadiq Khan intimated, “alpha” personality types (not just “alpha males”) can put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect and to maintain that façade publicly.

But it doesn’t always happen to “other people”… It can happen to you, and your leadership team, too.

And if this is the case, you need to square up to what’s happening – and get the help you need.

Take care of yourself emotionally, mentally and look after your general health – because if you don’t, you’ll find it more difficult to look after others and stay positive.

Finally, let’s all look out for each other more.

Every morning, when I speak to Marc, our Strategic Marketing Director, we ask each other: “Are you ok?”

They’re three tiny words, but they mean that we are normalising the idea that reality is difficult and one of us might not be okay.

By continually checking in with each other, we think more carefully about how we’re doing…

…And we both understand that if the answer is ever, “Actually, I’m struggling today,” the other person will be there to support them.

This doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation with your peers, by the way. There is even the head of a Kreston firm who emails me every single week with a little joke. I know this is his way of checking in on me, just to make sure I’m ok!

So reach out to others. Do not assume that just because someone’s title is “director”, “partner”, “CEO” or “head of”, they’re managing – because they may not be.

And most of all, be kind to yourself.