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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Psychology Today: Overcoming the Loneliness of Leadership

From Psychology Today, posted 10/30/2015

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

Who can you turn to when life gets tough? Who do you have… when you’re alone?

Over the past 20 years, Americans have faced a crisis of community. As Robert Putnam documented in his famous book “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, we’re spending less and less time with each other. As technology connects us, it changes the types of relationships we have. We have more “friends” than ever, but we lack the deep bonding we yearn for.

The problem isn’t just anecdotal. In 2014, the National Science Foundation reported in its General Social Survey that an unprecedented number of Americans are lonely. Almost one fourth of respondents reported having “no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs.”

One solution is developing a support group – a group of people that you meet with regularly to reflect, share, and support each other. We know these groups are important, but it’s difficult to change how we behave. As CEO Tad Piper explained in Discover Your True North, “Many of us find excuses—I’m too busy . . . The payoff isn’t clear . . . I’ll do it next year—to avoid building the types of relationships these groups engender.”

If you look at the psychological research, however, the pay-off is clear. Developing a strong support network makes you happier, more productive, and better prepared to face the world.

Emotionally, having a strong support network changes how you feel. As the Mayo Clinic recently reported, deep personal connections help decrease stress, anxiety, and the risk of depression. Having close relationships changes your fundamental biology. In 2006, the Journal of Behavioral medicine reported that social support is linked to a lower rate of mortality and an improvement in the immune system.

Having a consistent group also helps you reflect on yourself. In preparing for the unexpected in life, leadership expert Warren Bennis says, “Have some group that will tell you the truth and to whom you can tell the truth… All you can do is make sure there’s some way of understanding reality beyond what you know yourself.”  A strong support group allows you see yourself more clearly. The members provide feedback, perspective, and (at times) the difficult truth you need to hear.

Finally, your support group helps you develop a feeling of belonging. As Brene Brown at the University of Houston put it, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.”  Developing a consistent group of peers you can be vulnerable with is essential in this process.

At various times your support group – something I call a True North Group –  will function as a nurturer, a grounding rod, a truth teller, and a mirror. At other times the group functions as a challenger or an inspirer. When people are wracked with self-doubts, it helps build their courage and ability to cope.”

We do not succeed on their own.  Our collective loneliness has been well documented, but the remedies have not. Authentic leaders build close relationships with people who will counsel them in times of uncertainty, be there in times of difficulty, and celebrate with them in times of success.

How strong is your support group? Who do you have… when you’re alone?