Forbes: How to maintain a balance between human connection and effectiveness in leadership

Forbes: How to maintain a balance between human connection and effectiveness in leadership

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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctoral-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.

They say it’s lonely at the top. Why is that? Naz Behesti recalls an interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook where he notes that top leaders often feel isolated in their positions. It’s common knowledge that those in leadership positions may feel isolated because of the pressures and responsibility that come with their position, the difficulty in making decisions on their own—in particular if those decisions are not popular—and the need to maintain a certain distance from their colleagues.

Sometimes, unpopular decisions are the only way to ensure an organization’s future well-being and growth. For those who jump quickly to judgment, consider taking pause and explore the many moving parts within an organization before casting blame. All leaders, regardless of their industry or organization, share a common burden of responsibility—it is, after all, par for the course.

People look to us to solve problems, find solutions and forge on through the trickiest of situations. While the work is hugely satisfying and brings genuine life purpose, it also has tremendous physical and mental demands. Due to the sensitive nature of our work, few leaders talk openly about how isolating and lonely the journey can be.

When things go wrong, we know fingers instinctively point upwards. This is no surprise, given that people often see leaders as unbreakable figures, projecting boundless energy and nerves of steel. Such misconceptions fuel ever-increasing demands, even amid shrinking budgets and talent struggles. The result? Leaders work long, hard hours in a relentless drive for organizational growth and success.

Many leaders I know rarely sleep more than a few hours each night and have little time for anything outside of work. When work-life balance becomes non-existent, many leaders suffer in silence. So, how can successful executives cope with job demands and loneliness at the top? Here is my advice on the matter:

Prioritize self-care.

First and foremost, prioritize a healthy work-life balance. Study after study tells us that being “on” 24/7 is a recipe for disaster for leaders and employees. Remember, while a commitment to self-care is easy to push aside, frazzled and burned-out leaders benefit no one.

Carving out time for personal activities that spark joy and eliminate stress is incredibly beneficial. By embracing these practices, you can help improve your well-being and find ways to connect with what matters. Sometimes, all it takes to lift your mood is a nature walk or coffee with a close friend.

Keep a growth mindset.

If you are prone to internalizing self-doubt and criticism, short-sighted thoughts can create a self-fulfilling cycle of isolation. Constant negativity can make you hesitant to seek support or engage others, further deepening your loneliness.

However, it’s possible to break free from this cycle by adopting a broader perspective and a longitudinal outlook. Remind yourself often of your mission and the positive impact your organization aims to bring to the world. Additionally, focus on learning from criticism rather than dwelling on the negativity of harsh words and sentiments.

A growth mindset makes receiving feedback more productive—which is vital if you aim to build stronger connections with your teams. While transparency is crucial in business today, many leaders are hesitant to share their struggles or uncertainties for fear of appearing incompetent or lacking confidence, which can stifle open communication and create self-imposed isolation.

Take a longitudinal look at your successes.

Business success happens when our carefully implemented plans take root and build momentum. Like the flywheel, its strength builds through consistent, focused effort. At first, getting a flywheel to turn takes immense energy. Pushing against its weight yields minimal results.

For example, as we prepare for upcoming changes at our university, I took a close look back at our progress over the past six years. I couldn’t help but recognize the power of the many seemingly insignificant wins. It is clear that as they accumulated, these wins compounded to deliver exceptional results. However, each bit of force contributes to a slow yet steady momentum. With persistent effort, the flywheel begins to spin faster and faster. Soon, the momentum builds, making it easier to create an unstoppable force.

I took a moment to reflect on my many past leadership decisions that positively impacted our organization. I know from experience that building momentum while carefully navigating a dynamic path leads to sustainable growth. Still, our work in the past six years was no cakewalk, and unexpected obstacles along the way required many unpleasant, yet necessary decisions, that left many to question and challenge authority.

Prioritize relationships with family and other leaders outside of work.

Solid and supportive relationships can help you avoid becoming trapped in an echo chamber of your thoughts. Keeping too insular a perspective can lead to flawed decisions, missed opportunities and an inability to anticipate problems effectively. Therefore, we must recognize and take proactive steps to avoid these potential pitfalls of loneliness and isolation.

That’s why I strongly advocate for a whole-human approach to leadership that focuses on regularly meeting psychological, mental and physical needs. Here are a few ways to help you prioritize the human connection and adequate self-care necessary to thrive as a leader:

  • While transparency in the office can be fraught with difficulties, trusted family members and friends can provide a solid sounding board. Their support can be beneficial, particularly for leaders who feel vulnerable after being unnecessarily attacked for making critical yet necessary decisions.
  • Simply thinking out loud and sharing the struggles of a troubling situation can help leaders identify and better understand the root cause of problems. Having an empathetic listener to talk things through with can be enough to help leaders find their way through challenging situations. When loneliness and isolation set in, family reminds us of our identity and values beyond our professional roles.

Beyond family, having a network of leaders from sectors other than yours can serve as an excellent support system. Acknowledging one’s need for human connection, empathy, support and understanding is crucial for leading with courage and strength.