I Am So Lonely: Leader Confessions

A friend asked me recently to share a memorable moment from work. That question usually prompts people to think of their high points and accomplishments, or focus on what they did that was special for them personally. For me, though, it wasn’t anything I did, but this day had a profound impact on me and how I approach the work we do at Ferrazzi Greenlight.

I was keynote speaker at a significant event. I had traveled internationally to be there. The room was big, literally the size of football fields, to accommodate 300 people on sofas and with exquisite surroundings. We had run an exercise to gather thoughts in teams about specific topics, and then common themes were discussed in the larger group in order to gain agreement and determine owners for the resulting actions. These exercises can begin to follow patterns but, on this trip, one stood out. Not because it was the most innovative, nor because it was the most impactful to the business, but because it was the most honest and human.

During a break, I had walked around to each of the groups and reviewed the points that they had written down. When I got to one group’s work, I reviewed it as meticulously as I had the others—so I could summarize the content for the audience when I resumed my keynote. I read it and I felt a sense of pain. It said, very simply, “I am so lonely.”

I must have lingered on that note for a few minutes. I kept going back to it. I wanted to help this person, but I didn’t know who wrote it. When I resumed my keynote, I picked up on the themes that came through from the breakout. And then I stopped because I felt a need to connect the people in the room to the person who had candidly shared how they felt.

I pondered how we could expect the best from this person when they felt that way. And I asked myself whether others felt the same way. It’s not uncommon in times of change and transformation for people to feel left behind. And what about their team members who were not present; did they also feel the same?

So, I called it out. I had a responsibility to do so. I explained that one of the notes had stopped me in my tracks. I said this person had my full support if they didn’t feel comfortable sharing with so many co-workers, but that they could contact me later and I offered my twitter account to contact me directly and in confidence.

I applauded the strength it took to be generous enough to share candidly with the entire group of executives. And then, as I said thank you to the anonymous person, a man stood up and said, “It’s my note.” A shiver ran down my spine. I thanked him for being so open, and I invited him to speak to me later in the event.

But that wasn’t enough. I asked the executives assembled there whether they would offer support to him. Whether they would rally and help understand the root cause of the loneliness and whether there was something they could do together to provide comfort, understanding, support, empathy and friendship, and that’s when the magic happened. This room full of senior executives rallied around and supported him; let him know that he was not alone. That he had allies in this transition, that his voice was heard.

This leader, this humble, vulnerable leader, did more for that event than he realized. He was candid enough to share how he really felt, and in return, people everywhere in that room made commitments to help him, and to reach out to their own teams and see if others felt that way. Can you imagine the impact of that power in your organization, or for you personally?

Of course, allowing yourself to be so exposed in such a high stakes situation is never easy. While I applaud his strength, few can summon it on their own. Most of us need to have the psychological safety first before we can call upon that strength. One of our most effective High-Return Practices for building that psychological safety is the Long, Slow Dinner.

The concept is simple: people are more willing to let down their guards when they are away from the office. By structuring the conversation to bring out each person’s authentic selves, bonds get formed that ripple back to more structured or formal locations. But the principle isn’t just for senior management or groups that need to form team bonds. It can be applied across myriad situations personally and professionally; what matters is that everyone shares their stories and experiences (even if it is just two people) so that those bonds strengthen.

It’s our responsibility as leaders to create environments where people feel psychologically safe to speak up and be heard, regardless of what they need to say, or rather, especially when they are saying something that’s unexpected, beyond the norm, or perceived as risky. It’s our job to engage our people and get to know them personally and professionally, to help them be the greatest they can be, and to coach and support them along their individual growth journeys.

My friend thanked me for sharing this, and I have to thank her for asking me this question. But more than anything, I thank the executive who had the wisdom to share something so deeply personal. That’s something else that good leaders do, too.

Rob Whitfield

Rob Whitfield


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