Some of the most effective and successful leaders I know readily describe themselves as misfits. They describe themselves as often feeling different or out-of-place, and uncomfortable in many business social settings. One CEO suggested he was a lifetime member of the Island of Misfits. It turns out this island may a bit more crowded than he imagined. Leadership misfit syndrome is widespread and frankly, understandable. There are however, some ideas for turning this feeling of disconnectedness felt by many in leadership roles, into productive opportunities for engagement.
While lacking the requisite background in psychology to understand the deep emotional issues at work here, my informal research suggests at least four big factors contributing to this feeling of being out-of-place.
Four Big Reasons Many Leaders Feel Like Misfits
1. Always “On”
Effective leaders are always “on” and unable to shed their leadership hats in workplace social settings. The traditional lunchtime relationships and water-cooler talk are closed to leaders, adding to a feeling of difference and isolation.
2. It’s Lonely at the Top
Leading is often lonely work. You’re surrounded by people vying for your attention, yet you’re fundamentally alone, unable to share the challenges of the journey with more than a handful of individuals.
3. The Microscope
Leaders understand their actions and utterances are observed, parsed, and processed, with people looking for meaning, often where there is none. A casual comment or light attempt at humor can and will reverberate through an organization, often with people imputing negative intentions.
4. Big Picture Accountability
Successful leaders are accountable leaders, recognizing and accepting that failure is their responsibility and success the outcome of everyone else’s actions. This perpetual feeling of accountability rents a great deal of space in a leader’s mind and promotes a constant big picture view. While everyone around them is living in the moment, the leader is time-traveling, looking for downstream implications of today’s decisions.
“It’s Not All Bad Being a Misfit”
Interestingly, those who describe one or more of the above stressors as contributing to a sense of disconnectedness, often characterize it not as a bad or sad situation, just a fact of life in their role. It’s less about being a “misfit” and more about being a “right fit” for the role.
One top executive feels out-of-place most often at her company’s evening social events following a day of meetings. “The dinner always offers a good setting to reinforce the day’s messages or, to ask questions. However, once dessert has been served and people migrate to the bar, I run in the opposite direction. I cannot afford to be myself in those settings, and frankly, I suspect it’s awkward if I’m around. That’s not my time.”
Another senior leader offers, “I sometimes regret not being able to share my worries and thoughts with the people around me. I also know that anything I say or do will be amplified, most often negatively, so, I keep my feelings to myself.”
Regardless of the stiff-upper-lip, self-censoring, and self-discipline on display, leaders are humans too and have the same needs for socialization and engagement as the rest of us. Here are four ways some leaders describe for turning leadership misfit syndrome into productive engagement.
Four Ideas to Move Beyond Leadership Misfit Syndrome:
1. Write to Engage
Some leaders I interviewed are active bloggers, sharing their ideas and insights internally and externally, and engaging in dialog around their writing. Others are active on social media, regularly connecting with the broader community of customers, partners, and interested parties. This channel allows the leader to share their authentic self while gaining insights and feedback from others.
2. Create a Kitchen Cabinet
No, I’m not talking about where you store your dishes. The term “kitchen cabinet” ties back to elected leaders creating an informal group of trusted advisors willing to share ideas and opinions. In political circles, these meetings often took place in someone’s kitchen. While top executives have a built-in peer group, many create an informal grouping of trusted advisors—the kitchen cabinet—drawn from different aspects of their lives.
3. Practice Drop-in and Drive-by Leadership:
One senior manager leaves blocks of time open on her calendar and fills those gaps by dropping-in on different individuals or teams. While the communication dynamics always change when the boss shows up, over time, her regular visits and questions, as well as support in these sessions, are a welcome part of the culture.
Another executive in a small, growing firm, makes it a point to take every new hire to lunch as early in their tenure as possible.
4. Turn Potentially Awkward Social Settings into Structured Work Situations:
While the idea might sound onerous, one management team uses the 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. time-slot at offsite company events as working sessions. These are often situation case discussions, brainstorming sessions, or team breakouts, all focused on some aspect of the business. The migration to social settings (the bar) still takes place for some after the working session. However, it’s easy to make an inconspicuous escape given the long day and fleeting hours.
One creative leader used a similar form of this approach, however, focused the evening work on fun and team-building, to minimize the grind everyone feels from these days.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
If you’ve signed on to lead, there’s no doubt you’re not one of the gang. The feeling of being a bit of a “misfit” is understandable. Instead of lamenting this state of existence, seize the opportunity to do more of what you’re supposed to be doing—leading by engaging in appropriate situations. Find more and different ways to engage, teach, ask questions, and offer support, and that nagging feeling of not being one of the gang will give way to one of increased focus and excitement for your work.