Lead Alone

You Can’t Lead Alone

Nothing will crush your team or organization faster than acting in isolation. Now more than ever, you need the right support to help you steer the ship.

By Daniel Hallak, Ph.D.

This season of pressure and uncertainty has revealed just how critical it is for us to be connected to others. For leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has created the need to draw on other people like never before. It’s also exposed that most of us just don’t know how to get the support we need.

It’s never been more important to wake up and surround yourself with a strategic network of people who will support you and stretch you. Being a leader has always been an isolating activity. This year, the need has only been accelerated.

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Isolated leaders are a danger to themselves and others. At the extreme, they make unilateral, dictatorial decisions without any accountability or checks and balances, leaving a wake of devastation behind them. More often, well-intentioned but isolated leaders get caught in an echo chamber, unable to discern how they’re showing up and the impact of their actions.

Isolated leaders make decisions without taking enough information, like they’re flying without any navigation. Even more, isolated leaders face their struggles alone, and they’re at greater risk for mental health issues, burnout, and derailment.

If you’re leading in isolation or supporting executive leaders in critical roles, it’s imperative to get intentional with strategic support. This is about taking planned and measured actions to get the real-time support you need to lead and be your best when it matters most.

Decades of research on networks, social capital, and developmental relationships have given us three categories of networks that are critical to maintain and build, especially in the midst of pressure and uncertainty: relationships that stretch you, support you, and are strategic for you. 

It turns out we also need different people, for different reasons, in different seasons. Each type of network brings a distinct benefit. Aligning your network to your leadership needs help optimize your time while getting you the right support. After all, leadership can be lonely, but leaders shouldn’t be.

Network #1: Relationships That Stretch 

We know leadership muscle is built when we’re at the edge of our development. Even in this season, you need relationships that push you outside of your comfort zone.

Some leaders need to grow their feedback network, enlisting other people to give it to them straight and provide the actionable feedback needed to expose blind spots and help illuminate the path toward derailment before they go too far.

Others need innovation networks: people who perceive the world differently from them and challenge them to stretch their thinking. This could be someone outside your industry or discipline who gives you fresh ideas to cross-pollinate with your own as you innovate and generate new ways of doing business and carrying out your mission.

Network #2: Relationships That Support

Relationships that stretch us give us an edge to innovate or provide critical feedback to increase our self-awareness. But relationships that support us are just as important. These are the people who give you social and emotional support. You can give them a call, cry on their shoulders, and they’ll encourage you to get back in the race. Even the toughest-skinned leaders need someone to help them recalibrate their self-efficacy. 

You also need mentors and role models who are deeply invested in you, guiding and advising in your decisions. These are people who have gone before you.

Sometimes these leaders are in your organization, but many times they aren’t. Usually, the more senior a leader is, the more likely this network is external. The more responsibility you have, the more important it is to find objective voices outside of your organization, peers who lead other firms, or mentors you’ve met in past roles.

Relationships that support create a buffer that allows you to process your opportunities and challenges in a safe, less biased space.

Network #3: Relationships That Are Strategic

The people in this category are different from mentors—they’re advocates and sponsors. They help you get things done. They open up doors for you, break doors down for you, or create doors where none exist.

Internally, they’re key for navigating company politics. Externally, they can help acquire funding or bridge relationships to a network you didn’t have access to before. 

You don’t need to be searching for a job to have the security from another set of relationships: career networks. These are people who you could call if you’re looking for a job tomorrow. Knowing that list of names allows you to take calculated risks and push an initiative forward despite resistance, or challenge a client who needs to hear the truth.

Your career network is twofold: an internal network that sets you up for advancement, or an external network that opens up opportunities at other organizations.

The takeaway? Every leader needs a mix of relationships. Some leaders most need to be stretched, and some have greater needs for support. Others need different strategic relationships depending on their developmental needs.

If getting strategic and intentional about your relationships sounds selfish, then you’re doing it wrong—I guarantee it. These types of relationships work best when there’s mutuality that goes well beyond mere reciprocity. As you strengthen your strategic network, you’ll find you fill some of those roles for leaders who are invested. 

Relationships are critical. If you’re leading anything where the stakes are remotely high, then your ability to be surrounded by people who provide stretch, support, or strategy isn’t an option—not for your sake, and not for the people who are depending on you.

Daniel Hallak, Ph.D., is the chief commercial officer of WiLD Leaders Inc., a firm focused on whole and intentional leader development through the WiLD Toolkit, a scalable platform of 10 sequential assessment tools and personalized feedback reports that provide comprehensive and intentional development plans. He is also adjunct faculty at Seattle Pacific University in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Business.