Very recently (translation: tonight), I realized something about leadership.
For many years, I had two very different concepts of leadership. Mental images, if you will. One was of the “cool kid” with power–an image borne of my high-school years where equal parts charisma and discipline were an inherited family trait passed down from Student Council President to Student Council President in a sort of benevolent nepotism. I learned, from those years, that there were people who were literally born to be leaders, the fact of their worthiness encoded into their genetics so that it was no surprise that a current Coral Reef (our student worship fellowship) President was the brother/sister/cousin of a previous one, because baby, they were born that way.
The other image, the one that came in university, was of a workhorse–a glorified machine that took on the hardest tasks and was expected to churn out success after success given minimal input. In that sense, “Leader” was more of a courtesy title; the truth was closer to “scapegoat”–the Leader was always the person with the most to lose from the failure of the project, with the idea of “command responsibility” meaning that if the goods were not delivered your head was the first to roll. As a grade-paranoid scholar who needed to maintain a position on the Dean’s List in order to do the one thing I really loved at the time–theater–I fit the bill perfectly, and so found myself strong-arming my way into heading groups where I scrambled for business contacts so we could finish a project or else sent irate messages via Facebook Notes to groupmates who hadn’t delivered on their promised pages of a group paper. I hated being a Leader, even as I felt obligated to be one because, to be honest, that first image of leadership was burned into my brain: that of a “cool kid,” someone who was “loved.” If I led my troops to victory, would they not love me?
…usually not. Irate Facebook Notes and chronic grumpiness do not earn you a circle of friends, after all.
When I cried in the car about everything that was happening, my mum could usually be counted on to trot out, in the course of her hybrid pep-talk scoldings, the old adage “It’s lonely at the top.” It seemed to be the blanket explanation for why, despite having “led” for several years, my circle of friends became smaller and smaller. The loneliness was somehow supposed to be a “training ground” for something greater, though what that thing was I never understood. Until now.
Today I finally realized something important about leadership, one that’s more or less shattered the two previous images that I’ve held until now. It also explains what my mother meant by “It’s lonely at the top.”
See, leadership is neither glory nor abasement. It isn’t hereditary, nor is it obligatory. You are neither victor (“cool kid”) nor victim (“scapegoat”). The truth is a little bit more complicated.
I always thought that being a leader must be lonely because of all the work you had to do, by yourself, without anyone to help you because being a leader meant being strong enough to not need the help, or else having no choice due to everyone else being unable to help anyway (see: “ego-fueled myth of leader being the most capable person in a group”). Leadership was either handed to you (as in the case of the generations of high school SC Presidents) or else thrust upon you (as in the case of group work). What I’ve realized now, however, is that leadership, real leadership, boils down to a choice.
The choice is simple: Will you, or won’t you serve?
Note that the role in question is serve and not lead, because being a leader does not always entail literally being in the lead. A leader is not always front and center. More often than not, they’re in the back room, or in the middle of the battle, working or fighting alongside and for the people they’re called to lead. Because that’s another thing about leadership–you’re called to it, whether by circumstance or some gut-deep longing in your heart to serve. It both isn’t, and is, for everyone. It isn’t, because many of us don’t ever feel the call, or else do their best to ignore it. It is, because ignoring it does not make the call go away–we are all designed to serve.
And this is where the loneliness comes in, as a leader. See, I always thought that the reason “the top” was such a desolate place was because you had to lose so many friends to get there, and not intentionally either. Being a leader sometimes means looking like the “bad cop” or the “slave driver,” and there were times that I owned those roles with gusto, lashing out at my teammates with acidic fervor, tearing them to shreds with my words. At the time, I thought it was necessary–they weren’t shaping up and I had to make them–even justified since I was shouldering the bulk of the work. And maybe, in some instances, they were (though I will always regret the harshness of the words). But that isn’t why being a leader is lonely. Making enemies, attracting haters, isn’t part and parcel of that ascent.
Rather…the loneliness comes from a much deeper place. One that I know and understand very well.
All throughout my life, I have struggled with the fear and insecurity that no one will ever look out for me. it is a fear that has come to life several times, most notably in my final, masters year of university when in a class exercise, I was described as someone who could “work for hours and hours and never need help; she always has it together, and she can always do the job.” It was supposed to be an encouragement, but rather, it terrified me, because in that moment I knew that any time I screamed for help it would fall on deaf ears. No one would believe that I was struggling…or rather, I felt that no one wanted to believe. It’s the curse of competence–when you look like you have it all together (operative word: look–people who know me know that I can be a neurotic, perfectionist, panicky mess, and that’s on a good day), most people believe that you are.
The very definition of being a leader is being the chief servant. The person who renders the most service. Which makes everyone “under” you as a leader actually “over” you in the sense that they have surrendered some of their authority in order for you to grant them a degree of security. It’s the social contract, the very core of our society. It’s why our president claims that we are his boss, because being a leader means looking out for everyone under you…sometimes at the cost of feeling like no one is looking out for you. That’s why it’s lonely. You bear the burden of caring for all those people who trust you–and in truth, the very best leaders of us often are those with an incredible penchant for empathy, kindness, and genuine concern–alone, because being a leader comes with that insane tendency to feel a bit like Atlas: that you must bear the burden by yourself. That no one else can carry it with you.
In some ways, this is true–there are some responsibilities a leader must needs shoulder alone by virtue of their position. And it is true that a leader is called upon to take on that “command responsibility” of setting a good example, of showing courage in the face of fear or else cool-headed confidence despite the looming risks of failure. Sometimes, a leader does need to look like they have it all together when in fact they don’t. This is part of their service.
But it isn’t true that they bear it alone.
Tonight, I learned why being a leader is such an incredibly great honor, despite the fact that it can hurt so much to be one. It is because, at the very top of that mountain, when you are alone and scared and don’t feel like you can have it all together, God meets you. Being a leader means that plugging into God becomes essential to your survival, because you need something to fill you when you are constantly being emptied out for others in service. It means a great and abiding intimacy, your life becoming in itself evidence that there is a God and He is real and he loves. Because unlike earthly leaders, God never needs to drop the ball from time to time, and so He is more than willing to catch any that fall from the hands (or backs) of those who have heeded the call and shouldered the glorious burden of service.
It’s lonely at the top, because it is often in those places of solitude and desolation that the face of God becomes so poignantly clear, piercing through our exhaustion and pain to the peace beneath. And this is why real leaders are so humble–because they know they aren’t doing this alone. They know they aren’t doing this at all. The only reason a leader can empty themselves out again and again is because Someone else is there to keep filling them. And it’s something else to be filled by God, to live by sustaining grace. It’s a place of such peace, because you know that you aren’t doing anything by your own strength–it’s all Him, and He is in control, and you are just his chosen face of the operation. He does all the work, and arguably you get glory out of the bargain, glory that out of gratitude you reflect back to him.
The demands of leadership may naturally produce loneliness, but out of that loneliness such joy becomes possible–a joy you can’t help sharing, can’t help pouring out of the overflow. Service, with all its difficulty, becomes a blessing, because in emptying yourself you leave more room to be filled again.
And this is why we are all called to be leaders in our own ways, big or small–because we are designed for this. We are created for that relationship of total dependence, of being filled to be emptied again and filled again over and over with springs of fresh water. Leadership is God’s invitation to a deeper connection with him, one wherein the feeling of loneliness is no match for the reality of never having to be alone.
I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t afraid of leading. I am. I’m absolutely terrified by the prospect of ever having to lead anything, of being given authority to wield in the service of others. I’m human, and flawed, and the fact of the matter is if it was all up to me I probably would end up sending irate Facebook Notes or lashing out at people. Except that it isn’t up to me. I know that when the time or opportunity comes for me to step up in faith, God will be on my side. I will not serve alone. And so this momentary loneliness, this pain of desolation, is merely a test I have to pass. Beyond it, God beckons, saying, “I am here. You are not alone. You need only believe in spite of the feeling. You have been emptied to be filled again.”
“I am here. You are never alone.”