It’s lonely at the top. Scoff if you wish, dear readers, but there is a singular loneliness to being a leader. I learned fast enough that the brainstorming, spitballing, and venting with coworkers that I was used to as a frontline librarian, and to a lesser extent as a middle manager, almost completely evaporated when I became The Library Director. Suddenly, my every off-the-cuff comment in the staff lounge was interpreted as policy, every casual conversation by the staff mailboxes as doctrine. Add to that the many pitfalls of being social with subordinates—I can’t invite someone I like to lunch without an undercurrent of “Why did the director ask me to lunch?!? Will everyone think she’s playing favorites with me? Am I allowed to say No?”—and it is no wonder that leaders are lonely.
But, we are leaders; we cope. We mourn the loss and then we pick up and carry on. For me, that meant curtailing some of my more personal conversations with staff, learning to qualify my statements so that it’s clear when I’m thinking out loud (this is not always successful—people hear what they want to hear), and doing a better job of referring employee questions to the appropriate manager to avoid having it look like I’m taking over other people’s jobs. I sought out other library directors, particularly those who were recently hired and could commiserate with me. I reached out to leaders in my community who may not have any idea what goes on at the library, but do face similar leadership challenges. I have occasional meetings, lunches, and coffees with nonprofit community leaders, directors of the other Township departments, and directors of other area public libraries. I am lucky, too, to have a solid network of friends outside of my library whom I can call on for perspective, venting, support, and drinks. The key to all of these relationships is discretion and confidentiality.
When I’m out networking and encounter a new leader, I ask, “How are you coping with the singular loneliness of having your job?” It’s a good icebreaker that gets us past the small talk. It almost always brings a look of relief that someone else knows what it’s like, and that one doesn’t have to be the loneliest number.
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