“… Follow My leadership; if you do not trust yourself, place your trust in Me. See, I am walking ahead of you along this fearful road.”
– St. Thomas More, The Sadness of Christ, written while imprisoned in the Tower of London.
It’s lonely at the top: The reality is that leadership in business or ministry often feels lonely. A leader is necessarily isolated in some sense; he is isolated because he is the guide, the one bringing others through a course of action that they cannot fully realize on their own. Sure, any good leader surrounds himself with those he trusts for advice, feedback, and accountability, but, at the end of the day, the weight of leadership is a blessing and burden that he bears alone.
But God does not call us to loneliness; He calls us to union with Him.
Why Leadership Feels Lonely
Why exactly does leadership feel so lonely at times? A leader can be isolated because of organizational challenges; after all, he is the only one privy to all of his organization’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Knowing that he alone has this perspective can make it feel impossible for a leader to completely detach from work concerns. The buck stops with him and, if the organization fails, he’ll typically be the one to blame.
On the flipside, a leader also can be isolated by organizational success. As an organization nets more powerful praise, more powerful complaints inevitably rise to the top as well. The leader of a successful organization also can face a temptation to pride, as well as shifting perceptions of those who may think he is getting a big head, regardless of whether it stays quite the same size on his shoulders. What is to be done about this burden of loneliness that so many CEOs and leaders experience?
Loneliness and the Mystery of Christ’s Solitude
The loneliness we experience in leadership isn’t meaningless pain. A Christian is a member of Christ’s body, called to share in the suffering and glory of His mystery. The Christian businessperson finds a purpose or meaning for his struggles when he turns to Christ and recognizes that his solitude is a sharing in Christ’s solitude. Despite feeling alone, the leader is always invited to let loneliness bind him to Christ in a special way.
Christ, in His preparation for and passion on the cross, took on human loneliness in an ultimate way. In the garden of Gethsemane, Christ spent the night alone, praying in an agony that caused Him to sweat blood from the mental and physical stress He was experiencing. Meanwhile, as Christ agonized, those who might support Him, the apostles, fell asleep. C.S. Lewis wrote about how Christ spent the night in prayer alone, saying, “For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.” What C. S. Lewis is getting at is how our focus needs to be predominantly on “Thy will be done,” even when the ache of loneliness throbs.
Of course, Christ’s solitude is different than purely human solitude. Christ’s solitude was the fruit of His communion with the Father and, mysteriously, what enabled that communion. “You will be scattered, each one to his home, and you will leave Me alone,” Christ said. And yet, “I am not alone because the Father is with Me” (John 16:32). The mysterious relationship of Christ and the other Divine Persons in the Trinity is difficult for us to comprehend, but what is quite clear is that Christ understands human loneliness and modeled for us how to spend the lonely nights. So, how do we learn from Christ’s lonely night of prayer and manage to say, “Thy will be done?”
When it’s Lonely at the Top, Accept It
Living the solitude of leadership like Christ begins with accepting your leadership position— including the stress of how it feels lonely at the top— as an act of service to God. Your job is to cultivate a garden of greatness and give its fruits to God! Reawaken the excitement of your vision for your company, your staff, or your clients. After all, work not only changes the world, it changes the worker as well, building up or tearing down the dignity of each individual person. How is your work, lonely as it may feel, not just making more but allowing other people to become more?
The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s reflection, Vocation of the Business Leader, describes:
“Pope Benedict XVI, prior to his papacy, wrote that the person ‘comes in the profoundest sense to himself not through what he does but through what he accepts,’ not through what he achieves but through what he receives. Indeed human accomplishment taken alone leads only to partial fulfillment; one must also know the power and grace of receptivity….”
Accepting the suffering of a vocation to leadership tempers the temptation to power for its own sake, and fosters a deepening opportunity for grace.
Let Loneliness Open Your Heart to Communion
Secondly, take your experience of loneliness to prayer, bringing it to the heart of the Father. In John 17, Christ speaks to the Father, praying for Himself, His disciples, and all Christians. In the midst of loneliness, Christ prays as a priest and leader, offering an example for our own prayers in times of loneliness:
John 17: 6-12
“I revealed Your name to those whom You gave Me out of the world. They belonged to You, and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word… I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for the ones You have given me, because they are Yours, and everything of Mine is Yours and everything of Yours is Mine, and I have been glorified in them… Holy Father, keep them in your name that You have given Me, so that they may be one just as We are.”
Christ’s desire is for the protection and sanctification of His followers; His desire is the same for us. We can take this to heart and repeat these themes in our prayers, asking for renewed faith, unity with other Christians, and hope for Heaven. We can also imitate how Christ prayed specifically for those entrusted to Him— as leaders, we can and should pray for our employees and co-workers.
If we have love for Christ, we can be confident that although we might experience being pushed down by loneliness, we will never be abandoned. Use the loneliness you experience as a business leader to open your heart to communion with God Who is near to you in personal prayer. Seize small moments to disconnect from others to connect with God in prayer. Then you will be better prepared to reconnect with and serve those around you. Remember: You are called to radical intimacy with Him.
When Leadership Feels Lonely, Look for Joy
When experiencing loneliness as a leader, it is important to allow yourself to find joy and consolation in the fruits of your service in the lives of those around you. Ronald Reagan once said, “The greatest leader is not necessarily one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” The leader belongs to his community, serves his community, and that is an occasion for joy. In what ways have you been able to bless others by your work? In what small (or big) ways has God worked through you to touch the lives of others? Allow yourself to rejoice in how God works through you.
“The greatest leader is not necessarily one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.” – Ronald Reagan
This Sometimes Lonely Life
No path will be without occasions of intense loneliness, but a business or ministry leader may feel loneliness more frequently or forcefully than others. When it feels lonely at the top, let this be an occasion not for mental anxieties to stack one on top of each other, but for turning to Christ and uniting with His solitude and suffering. Through God’s grace, the loneliness of leadership can be an opportunity for gentle growth, increased prayer, and reminding oneself to notice joy.