Overcoming the New Leadership Epidemic — Isolation and Loneliness

Overcoming The New Leadership Epidemic — Isolation And Loneliness

I talk to a growing number of leaders who ask for advice—very personal advice.

They ask me questions like Should I stay in this church or move on? or I’m struggling with my elder board, is it time for me to leave? These are really big questions, and they’re situation-specific. As you can imagine, it’s almost impossible for me to answer the question because I don’t know the leader, I don’t know the church and I don’t know the situation in any detail. Even a 17-paragraph email or a 30-minute phone call wouldn’t give me enough context to truly weigh in, because the situation is so specific and the stakes are so high.

So my advice is always the same. I tell leaders, “First I would pray about it and search the scriptures. But then I would find two to five wise people who know you well, who love God, who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth, who love you and love the church/organization you’re a part of, and I would see what they have to say.”

You know what I hear back after I say that? Usually silence. Not like “thanks, that’s exactly what I’m going to do” kind of silence. I mean crickets. Which I think means they don’t have that circle around them.

And on the odd occasion when I do hear back, I often hear that the leader doesn’t have a group of people locally who can help.

That breaks my heart.

The paradox of our culture is this: We’ve never been better connected than we are today. And we’ve never felt more alone.

So many of us have a thousand friends online, but nobody to talk to (at a deep level) in real life. Loneliness has become a modern epidemic.

Early in 2018, the United Kingdom appointed a minister of loneliness. As the New York Times reports, research is showing that loneliness can be more deadly to your health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. A recent study showed that over 200,000 elderly people in Britain had not had a conversation with a friend or relative in a month. And it’s not just older people. University students report feeling very alone because they feel rejected or they don’t fit in.

It’s Lonely at the Top, We Tell Ourselves

Add leadership into the mix, and it gets even worse.

After all, I’ve said it. You might have said it too: Leadership is lonely.

Maybe you’ve had these phrases come out of your mouth too:

Nobody understands what this leadership load is like.

People don’t really care how I feel.

It’s lonely at the top.

I have. Early in my time of leadership, I began to accept loneliness as part of the job.

Over time, though, I developed a new way of thinking about the loneliness that creeps into the life of most leaders:

Loneliness is a choice.

Solitude is good. In fact, it’s a gift from God. Solitude is restorative, transformative and powerful.

Isolation? Just the opposite. When I isolate myself, I lose touch with reality, cut myself off from relationships that give life, and expose myself to risks that would never happen if I’m in authentic community.

Isolation isn’t a gift from God at all. It’s a tool of the enemy.

As much as I decide to be lonely, I will be. But I don’t need to be. Ditto for you. You’re as lonely as you decide to be.

Who Can Help You Make Better Decisions? Well…Not These Guys

I can understand why people reach out to leaders they don’t know for advice. I get that.

Sometimes in my head I think an hour with Andy Stanley, Tim Keller or Craig Groeschel would solve all my problems and make my path clear. Or that a day with Ann Voskamp would help me plot out my next 17 books.

It’s not that I can’t learn from leaders like that. But a call to Brian Houston (even though I’ve spent some personal time with Brian), smart as he is, isn’t going to help me know what God wants me to do in this next phase of my life. He just doesn’t know me well enough.

Nor do I know the people who message me well enough to really speak into their life with precision and accuracy.

And even when I do speak into the life of a close friend, I’m sincerely hoping he or she gets a second, third and fourth opinion. The stakes are just too high.

Every time I’ve made a big decision (jumping from law to ministry, finding churches to serve in, stepping into a founding pastor role, becoming an author/blogger/podcaster), the decisions have been made after much prayer, much reading of scripture and hours of prayerful conversation with close friends and family. People who know me well can speak into my life.

Sometimes you hear the voice of God most clearly from the mouths of people who know God well and know you well. I know I do. They help me interpret what I’m reading in scripture and what I’m hearing in prayer much better than I do on my own.

Because of the constant connectivity we have with leaders and influencers, I think a lot of the time we think someone ‘famous’ can solve our problems, and we bank on that.

While I learn from the best leaders in the church and business world today, I realize Seth Godin may never personally speak into my life. That’s OK. I enjoy Seth Godin for about 100 other reasons.

Your best shot at staying connected is becoming friends with a leader who’s a step ahead of you in your town or a neighbouring town. They’ll likely have lunch with you once a month or even once a week. And you can learn.

Honestly, that’s how I started connecting two decades ago. I still treasure many of those relationships.

They’ve been the lifeline that has moved me through the ups and downs of leadership.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof is founding pastor of Connexus Church and the author of several books, including his latest best-selling work, 'Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow.' Carey speaks to church leaders around the world about leadership and personal growth.