Lonely at the Top?


Sherry Surratt helps you find the encouragement you need when leadership feels heavy

One of my favorite TV shows is Downton Abbey, and one of my all-time favorite lines is when Carson (the head butler) says, “Heavy lies the head that wears the crown.” When he says this to Mrs. Hughes (the head housekeeper), I think she rolls her eyes and pops back with, “Oh my, I didn’t know you were such royalty,” or something like that. It’s why I like the show. Lots of drama.

I’ve thought a lot about that line. Leadership can feel heavy. It gives you many things to worry about, and it can make you feel like you are the only one who bears the weight. This can be so lonely. In my leadership experiences, I can’t always say I’ve handled this well. In fact, there have been times when I’ve been really lousy at handling the pressure of leadership and the isolation that can come with it.

You Can’t Do Both

I remember my first big job in leadership when I was the assistant principal at a large elementary school. I didn’t know what I was doing. I knew how to teach, but I didn’t know how to lead other teachers. I worried that I was too young to lead. Many of the other staff members had been teaching for years and had a lot more experience than I did.

My first meeting with the other administrators was a disaster. I dropped my purse and the contents spilled out in front of everyone. Most of the other principals were men—older men. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I was too afraid to talk because I felt like I had nothing important to say. I sat alone and I left feeling miserable.

My regional superintendant was there and he could tell I wasn’t handling things well. He gave me a couple days and then came to see me. When he asked how I was doing, he could tell I was covering. So he looked me right in the eye and said, “Who are you leaning into? Who is helping you? You’re not trying to do this alone, are you?”

I had to admit that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I wasn’t asking for help, and I was trying to do it all alone. He then said something I’ll never forget: “Sherry, you can lead alone or you can lead well. You can’t do both.”

He was exactly right. Without realizing it, I was being arrogant when I tried to lead as a lone ranger. I really thought I could figure it out all by myself. I didn’t know who to ask for help, so I simply didn’t ask. I didn’t know who to trust, so I didn’t trust anybody. In my mind, these ridiculous excuses justified my loneliness. Somehow I had built up the idea that a good leader doesn’t have anyone helping her. How unrealistic.

Two Key Allies

I’ve learned a lot about leadership since that initial experience. Now I know that I need to have two kinds of people in my life: encouragers and challengers. The encouragers are people who know me well and who encourage me to talk about the tough stuff. They listen and don’t try to fix it, but give me a safe outlet to put words to how I’m feeling. Everybody needs a person like this in her life.

Do you have encouragers in your life who are trustworthy listeners, who let you share the deep stuff in your life and love you anyway? If you don’t, ask God to help you see who he’s put in your life for this purpose. If God called you to leadership, he will give you encouragers who will pray for you, listen to you, and help lift your eyes up at just the right moments. For me, the best encouragers are people outside of my organization or close working circle.

The challengers serve a different purpose in my life. These are the people whom I admire for the particular skills I want to grow in. Sometimes we call them “mentors.” I have several of these people in my life, and they help sharpen and push me to grow and be better. They are the ones in my life who ask the hard questions about my work habits. One of them often tells me, “Sherry, stop whining and get on with what you know you need to do!” Every leader needs to hear this from time to time, and it reminds me that while leadership can be hard, the challenge is a good thing.

Build Your Team

Here are a couple of things that have worked for me in finding encouragers and challengers. I don’t always look for someone that lives near me. One of my closest encouragers lives several states away, but she and I talk regularly on the phone. Don’t discount distant relationships, but when looking for an encourager, find someone whom you enjoy and whom you can be real with. Make sure she is someone who will speak the hard things you need to hear. You want someone to encourage you who is kind and loving, but you also want this person to be someone who will be direct and encourage you in the right direction: toward growth.

One of my best challengers is a sharp businessman who helped me learn how to read a financial report. It was intimidating to ask for his help, and to be honest I felt dumb asking him questions that I thought I should already know, but I realized that if I didn’t ask, I wasn’t going to learn. He turned out to be kind, wise, and happy to help. When looking for a challenger, look for someone with the experience you need—someone who is down the road a little farther and has critical, godly wisdom to share. Then, take a deep breath and ask. If she turns you down, ask someone else. Refuse to throw yourself a pity party on your lonely leadership island (like I did). No one wants to come to that.

Here are some questions to think about as you consider your leadership challenges:

  • Do you have at least one encourager and one challenger in your life? How do you use him or her? If you don’t, what’s holding you back?
  • What isolating factors are you using as excuses? It could be your gender, age, or experience level. Look for someone who shares these factors and can help you develop confidence.
  • The biggest way to combat the heaviness of leadership is to just ask for help. So who will you ask?

Leadership can feel isolating, but only if you let it. Reach out for that life preserver, and also be willing to offer your own wisdom to aspiring leaders around you. It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top.

Written by Sherry Surratt

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