The Lonely Leader

And how not to be one

To be a leader, it is often said, is a lonely calling. A thankless task. Looked up to, depended on, criticised, misunderstood, exposed.

There is an element of truth to this, but the reality is that the reason so many leaders feel lonely in their roles is because of how they lead. Furthermore, the style of leadership that makes them lonely also makes them a worse leader.

The Outsider Leader

The traditional view of a leader has them elevated above and outside their team. Many leaders have moved on from the “boss” view of a leader into a more facilitative, enabling, coaching role. This is good, but even having made this transition many leaders find themselves trapped on the outside. There is the team, and then there is the leader: keeping their distance, never showing vulnerability, acting like it is their job to have all the answers. This leader is isolated, on their own, without a team.

No wonder they feel lonely.

The “Outsider Leader” model also makes for worse leaders. They are more likely to:

  • Come across as “out of touch”. The Outsider Leader maintains distance and expects status reports. They don’t encourage confidences from their team, and as a consequence don’t get any. As time passes there is more and more context to which they are not privy, until they are hopelessly out of touch. I’ve seen this happen to many good and talented people.

  • Make suboptimal decisions. The Outsider Leader sees themselves as above their team. It is their job to make decisions and hand them down. Although they may consult, they do not truly involve their team in decision-making. As a consequence, the decision misses the rich context and intellect, the diversity of thought and the debate that allow for the best possible decision to be made.

  • Suffer attrition. Team members are loyal to their team; if a leader is not a part of the team then they will feel less personal loyalty to their leader. They will thus be more willing to move on.

There is an alternative, though.

A Sense of “We”

The model I aspire to1 is one of Insider Leadership. This means that the leader is a part of the team that they lead. One way I have thought about this is that the leader should be “first among equals”. But what I find most powerful is thinking in terms of a “Sense of ‘We’”.

When an Insider Leader speaks to their team, they ask, “what should we do?”. When a member of the team speaks to their insider leader, they similar ask, “how can we solve the problem?”. Listen for the word we. Does it include the leader? There is no separation, no dividing line between the leader and the rest of the team. Everyone has their role. The leader’s role is to be the leader. But ultimately, it is one team. “We” succeed or fail together.

Being an Insider Leader is a mindset, and it leads to a number of changed behaviours.

Firstly, because the leader doesn’t separate or elevate themselves from their team, they can show their humanity and their vulnerability. They can say “I don’t know” or “what do you think?” or “I’m having a stressful week”.

Secondly, because the Insider Leader sees themselves as a member of the team, they naturally invite the input and contributions of others. Although ultimate decision-making authority and accountability lie with them, they aspire to make decisions together.

Finally, the Insider Leader invites the confidence of the team because they are a part of the team, not apart from the team.

In the Real World

I aspire to be an Insider Leader, and like to believe I have had a good deal success in accomplishing that goal. I also believe it has helped me to be a more effective, and less lonely, leader. Before I wrap up though, it is worth noting that Insider Leadership is an ideal that is difficult to accomplish in full.

One of the challenges is management. Many leaders have formal people management responsibilities over the individuals on their team. That means they have hire/fire authority, salary setting authority, and other power over the careers of their team-mates. There is a real power differential there that cannot simply be wished away. However, just because you are somebody’s manager doesn’t mean you cannot be their team-mate too. If you start with the right mindset, it can largely be overcome.

What are your experiences with Outsider/Insider leadership, either as a leader or as someone who has been exposed to different kinds of leaders? Would love it if you could share in the comments 👇

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no, it’s not “servant leadership,” which shall be the topic of a future snarky LinkedIn post.