The True Cost of Leading in Isolation


  Just because you feel isolated as a leader doesn’t mean you should choose to lead in isolation. This is a tough lesson to learn, especially for new leaders. What got you to where you are today—your skills, talents, and abilities—won’t be the same things that will make you successful moving forward. Instead, you must rely on your ability to build teams, earn trust, and value relationships.

A leader’s primary responsibility is to create an environment where others can be successful—not to be the star player. How many coaches have you seen take off their tie, put on a jersey, and substitute in for another play when the team is losing? None! Why? Because the coach needs to coach and the players need to play.

No leader sets out to lead in isolation.

But when the pace is moving swiftly, and progress is slow, it’s a natural, subtle temptation for the leader to do one of two things:

  1. The leader begins to believe every outcome is completely dependent on them to execute and, as a result, must sidestep or work around the team.
  2. The leader retreats and avoids the reality of the situation in fear that they aren’t sure what to do next and don’t want to admit they’re stuck.

Both are very real scenarios that are often coupled with very real emotions. Neither response is a healthy one. But isolation can drive a leader to behave in destructive ways and negatively impact the culture they’ve worked so hard to foster.

Isolation is a temptation you need to resist at all costs.

A leader is a coach first and foremost, and it’s hard to coach in isolation. No matter how much talent, skill, and ability you have as an individual, you can’t lead an organization to experience a substantive breakthrough alone. And you can’t be a coach if there is no team.

Let me give you seven costs that come with subverting your team and choosing to lead in isolation:

  1. You will become disconnected from the team you need to get you to where you’re going. Without a team, you’re just a coach with a playbook. It doesn’t matter how good those plays are unless you have a team to execute.
  1. Your perception of reality will be distorted which will diminish your ability to make good decisions. You need to consume the brutal facts, your perspective, and the outlook of your team to make the best decision. Without that, you will be limited in some capacity to make the best decision.
  1. You will risk undermining key allies and relationships out of paranoia or fear. You can’t win a war by yourself. If you cut off your key allies, you’ll be more vulnerable than ever before.
  1. You will stop thinking about what’s possible and instead become obsessed with preserving what exists today. This is what happens when you lead from a place of fear and scarcity. Choose an abundant mentality instead.
  1. You will step back from your vision and become consumed with daily tasks. Someone has to be thinking about vision and strategy, and someone needs to execute on that strategy. If no one is creating strategy and vision, soon there won’t be anything to execute on.
  1. You will stunt your curiosity and openness to learn, observe, and change. The best ideas rarely come in the moments we expect them to. They come in the midst of conversation, experiences, and working together with people we trust.
  1. You will unintentionally hurt those who love you the most. More important than the teams you lead are the people who are part of your family. They were there for you before your current leadership role and will be there long after your leadership tenure has ended. Don’t neglect them in the name of success. It can compound the negative realities of isolation.

You have a choice to make.

The good news is you don’t have to incur the costs described above. There are certainly moments when leaders must retreat from the demands of their schedules to gain clarity and perspective. That is a personal discipline I’ve learned to practice and hold myself accountable to over the years.

It’s also important to get input from others. This is why mentorship is so important for leaders, especially senior leaders. Someone has to have the ability to be objective for you even when you can’t be.

Trust and relationships will make—or break—your leadership potential.

The ability to build and maintain the trust of those you lead is critical to your success. Relationships are the atmosphere in which trust can be broken or built up. Without it, you’re just a dictator giving orders. With it, you are a collaborative partner that values the insights and commitments of talented people who will take you places you couldn’t go on your own.

Avoid the temptation to lead in isolation, and you’ll secure your ability to achieve greater outcomes than you first thought possible.

CHALLENGE: Take an assessment of your leadership. Determine whether or not you are leading in isolation. If so, decide what you need to change today to reconnect with your team and the relationships most important to you. Find a trusted advisor and ask them for their feedback and input on your self-assessment. Listen with an open mind and outline your next steps.