Why Leaders Are Lonely, If They’re Willing to Lead

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“Command is lonely.”

     –     The final lesson in Colin Powell’s 18-lesson “Leadership Primer”

Most people think they want to be in charge.  Most people think they’re leaders.

Until they realize that command is lonely.

Most people want to be in charge when it comes to speaking at the company Christmas party, or when it comes to hosting the customer for dinner and a ball game.  Most people want to be leaders when bonuses get handed out for a great year, or when there’s a ribbon cutting for the new plant, the new park sponsored by the company or when the charity giving campaign is tallied up.

Those are not lonely times.  Those also represent about one-tenth of one percent (or less) of the way a leader spends his or her time.  Let’s look at the other extreme, and gain some insight as to why leadership can be, and often is a lonely place.

Firing someone is a lonely time.

Laying off a shift because the plan has failed is a lonely time.

Admitting a flaw in the strategy, a mistake in calculating the earnings, a theft by an employee or the loss of a customer — those are all lonely times.

Deciding which product to fund when there’s not enough capital to fund two.  Deciding whether to cut salaries to offset an increase in taxes and / or regulatory and compliance expense.  Exiting a market in order to fund and launch a “make it or break it” move in to a transformational new space.  Going “all in” when you truly understand the ramifications of “all in.”

Those are not times when most people want to be in charge.  Those are times that call for leaders.

“The essence of leadership is the willingness to make the tough, unambiguous choices that will have an impact on the fate of the organization.”  Note he didn’t say “ability.”  The ability is in more people than is the willingness.  It is far easier to know the right thing to do than it is to do it.  Leaders lead.

No matter how open, informal and collaborative your culture becomes on your watch, General Powell is right  — “Prepare to be lonely.”

Leaders lead.


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