The website recently carried an article that linked leadership and feelings of loneliness. I get where the author is coming from. When you take on a position of increased responsibility, it’s common to go through a phase of struggle as you learn how to separate yourself from “the frontline troops” and become more of an “order-giver.”

But if that’s how you view a promotion to a position of leadership, then you’ve set yourself up for failure.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it doesn’t have to be “lonely at the top.” After over a decade of leadership positions in the U.S. Marine Corps, plus experience in corporate leadership roles, I’ve seen many cultures, organizations, and people operating under the assumption that leadership and loneliness go hand in hand. That assumption is bogus.

If you, as a leader in any kind of organization, call your teammates your employees, you create a culture of separation.

In 2003, I was meritoriously promoted to the rank of corporal in the Marine Corps. That means I was promoted early, ahead of my peers. I earned that promotion because I had proven myself not only proficient in the technical skills of my occupation, but also extremely confident in how I directed the actions of other Marines (i.e., leadership). I was extremely proud of my accomplishment, but my experience afterward became a lesson in humility.

Due to the promotion, I had to begin setting myself apart from my colleagues — or so I thought, because of what I was told by more senior leaders. I began to distance myself emotionally from the very pals I had previously (the day prior to my promotion) lived with, laughed with, and broken rules with. No longer could I be “one of the guys.” I had to break away from being part of the team and assume a position as the team’s leader. I had to evolve into someone who called the shots, which meant I couldn’t be as “tight” with the regular folks as I had been previously.

I became really good at toeing the party line and acting as though I was above my peers. Now, arguably, I was above them in terms of title and pay grade. Yet as I sought to satisfy our cultural norm for leadership, my behavior displayed an air of being above my teammates in authority, in morality, and in knowledge … because I was a “leader.”

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We held a cultural and organizational assumption that to be a “leader,” to be able to give orders that could (ostensibly) put others in danger, we had to maintain a certain professional distance from our troops. As a corps, we assumed that to be a leader, one had to be lonely.

We were wrong, and so is the author of the article. You are, too, if you think that leadership and loneliness are inextricably linked. I will break down some of the elements in the article that I feel were erroneous based on my experiences as a leader:

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1.) “When your friends are your employees…” I cringed when I read these words. Already, this assumes an ‘us vs. them’ mentality within the context of a leader’s relationship to his team. Some questions come to my mind. First, why would you consider your friends your employees? Why frame their contributions to the team’s shared mission in terms of employer-employee?

Next, why not describe your teammates as teammates? If you, as a leader in any kind of organization, call your teammates your employees, you create a culture of separation. You’re telling them that you are master, and they are servants. That’s not how you build a culture of trust. It’s not a good way to create conditions in which you can grow as a leader. It is a great way to maintain separation and achieve loneliness.

The “us vs. them” organizational lens (white collar vs. blue collar) is a holdover from the dark days of the industrial age. A better way to lead is to view the other people who help you pursue your goals as your operational partners.

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Disclaimer: As a business school graduate, I fully understand the administrative mechanics of employment. When I, as a business leader, hire someone, they become employees of the company through which I have hired them. But that fact doesn’t require me to frame my interactions with them in terms of hierarchical, positional definitions. I can, and do, deliberately act to create a culture of partnership. People don’t work for me; we work together, with a shared mission.

2.) “At some point your staff is going to talk about you behind your back.” Wow! This is a terribly pessimistic assumption that your people are petty, insecure, and incapable of addressing their issues with you directly. If this is how you and your team work, then you probably do feel lonely. You feel lonely because you don’t trust your people, and they can see that. If this is your reality, then you, the leader, have set a poor example.

A better way would be to cultivate an open dialogue with your teammates about the rationale and impact of your decisions. Ask them if they understand the goals your team is pursuing, why those goals exist, and how their contributions help the team achieve its goals. Heck, you could even ask them something as earth-shattering as, “How can I make your work experience more enjoyable?” I’ll wager that if you ask such questions and give your time and genuine interest, your team won’t talk negatively about you behind your back.

Trust occurs when you intentionally seek to create strong bonds with others.

Oh yeah, and if you want to be a leader, bond with your team. Don’t watch them bond with each other while you stay safely distant in your office. If you remain aloof, you’re sure to feel lonely throughout your professional career. You’re also sure to never be seen as a great leader.

3.) “Bonding outside of the office shows that you’re invested in … relationships.” Balderdash. Deliberate, intentional bonding with your teammates while you work together is how you invest in your relationships. If, according to the article’s author, your team is bound to talk about you behind your back, and already keeping you at arm’s length because you’re ‘the boss,’ and all this occurs during working hours … then how will spending infrequent, short amounts of time outside of working hours display your interest in a real relationship with them?

A better way to invest in your team is to treat them like a team during the workday. Don’t treat them like your “workers” or your “staff.” Treat them as though you trust them to handle your business pursuits, because, well, you’ve hired them to handle your business pursuits.

Cultivate an atmosphere of mission and trustMission is a clear, unambiguous, believable, aspirational, and inspirational vision of a future reality, toward which you and your teammates are striving. It’s the flag you all rally around when difficult obstacles arise. It’s the “why” for all your business decisions, and for your commitment to each other.

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Trust occurs when you intentionally seek to create strong bonds with others, show your commitment to them and to the mission through consistent behavior, and hold yourself and others accountable to care for the culture you’ve all bought into.

Jeremiah D. McCloud is a former U.S. Marine Corps intelligence officer and an OpsLens contributor. McCloud spent nearly four years as an enlisted Marine, then attended the U.S. Naval Academy, where he earned a BS in international relations. He deployed to Afghanistan, and has since acquired an MBA from the University of Virginia in International Business and Communications. This Ops Lens article is used by permission. 

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