One of my later tours in Afghanistan was as a task force operations officer. My boss, Big Ed, was an amazing officer and an amazing leader. He was responsible for dozens upon dozens of special operations forces, operating in some of the most diverse and complex situations you can ever imagine.
I was fortunate enough to work very closely with this man for years. In combat, I observed how he went through the process of leadership: how he conducted the mission analysis, assessed risk, examined impact, loss, and how he dealt with it all. I watched this man make so many decisions that affected the lives of not just his men and his women, but also their families back home—because sometimes these folks didn’t come home when they conducted those missions.
When Big Ed made these decisions, you could see the weight that he carried on his shoulders, and he carried that weight alone. He didn’t share that burden. He knew that was his to carry. He knew that was his loneliness of command.
I felt versions of that in my career, though I never led at the scope that Big Ed did. I had my own moments as a commander, and there were times when I had to make hard decisions that affected people’s lives. In some cases, decisions I made in combat meant people didn’t come home. It was a very lonely place to be.
Any of us who have to lead face the loneliness of command. Leadership is a personal endeavor, a human endeavor, whether you’re leading in a commercial bank, a nonprofit, or as a teacher. Leadership means leading human beings. Often, we’re going to have to make difficult, sometimes painful, decisions. There is a weight that we will have to carry, and the burden will be heavy.
The loneliness of command, the weight of leadership, is unavoidable because we’re not going to get it right all the time. We’re going to make mistakes. There are decisions that I have to make all the time as a business owner and veteran-advocate nonprofit founder that are not easy decisions, but I have to make them for the sake of something bigger than myself.
I think in this age of rapid tempo and transactional focus, one of the things we fail to teach our young leaders as they are coming up in the ranks is that there is a loneliness of command. There is a weight of leadership that one must bear when going through the tough decisions in life. And you cannot outsource it, avoid it, and most certainly cannot deflect it.
I’ve seen some very senior leaders, lately, try to avoid the loneliness of command. Some avoid it by pursuing popularity with their associates and not making the hard calls. Some avoid it by punting the hard calls to a subordinate to make, or by pretending the situation requiring a decision doesn’t exist. None of those options work and none of those options truly serve your people.
You can’t avoid the loneliness of command, but you can make it easier to bear. When you have to make these tough decisions as a leader, refer back to the higher purpose—your own or your organization’s. Big Ed knew his charter for being in Afghanistan was bigger than himself and our unit. He knew that the decisions he made were an obligation. He had to serve that higher purpose.
Even though we have to endure the loneliness of command, it doesn’t mean that we must be isolated. In fact, I believe it’s essential that we over-communicate with our people, our peers, and our seniors on what’s going on in our lives. The more we can over-communicate, the better.
When you find yourself deep in the trenches of this loneliness, take communication a step further and find yourself a group of like-minded leaders who carry similar burdens.
They may not be in your industry, they may not even be in your organization. In fact, I think that’s better. I had a five-person “mastermind” group and we met every few months. They were Dr. Ara Suppiah, the golf doctor for the Ryder Cup, Jerry Lujan, who coaches high-performing corporate leaders, David Martin, a dynamic, high-impact business consultant, Greg Parsons, a former Marine who runs a wealth management company, and myself.
We’re all very different, but we all experience the same loneliness of command and we go through things that only we understand. Yet, we’re able to talk about those issues in ways that help us realize we’re not alone in that journey. That realization can make a huge difference in the lonely moments of leaders. So get yourself an informal mastermind group who can circle around the table and talk about tough issues.
All those things will help you deal with it, but you can never avoid it. The loneliness of command is part of the necessary burden of leading people and doing the right thing. Leadership is personal. It’s uncomfortable. It is, after all, an inherently human endeavor. So don’t push away from it. Lean into it, accept it, and lead strong from that place. Your people deserve it.
Scott Mann is a former Green Beret who specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions and relationship building. He is the founder of Rooftop Leadership and appears frequently on TV and many syndicated radio programs. For more information, visit RooftopLeadership.com