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Alone Again

Astronaut Al Worden was once proclaimed the “most isolated human being”. Let us explain. Al Worden was one of seven men that undertook the role of Apollo command module pilot. When their colleagues were cavorting on the lunar surface collecting rocks and dust to bring back to Earth, these command pilots were left in the Moon’s orbit, all alone and at times, 3,600 kms away from their team mates down on the surface.

Worden flew to the Moon in July 1971 alongside Jim Irwin and Dave Scott flying a quarter of a million miles from Earth and the rest of humanity. Worden spent three days alone in his Lunar orbit.

Interestingly when asked about his colleagues, Worden thinks that his team was an effective team because they weren’t particularly great friends. They trained together and respected each other hugely but kept a professional distance. This enabled the team to focus on their packed twenty hour working days rather than to spend time worrying about interfacing with each other.

Al Worden’s isolation got us thinking about the loneliness felt at times by senior executives where it is all about the job and having friends in the work environment can actually be counter-productive.

Loneliness then can be a constant companion of the executive, who, because of the fast moving lifestyle, often has a smaller network of close friends in the main than the person in the street who has a “regular job”. Also, the nature of the executive role is such that it is easy to grow away from a circle of friends the further the career develops. Nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.

Leaders owe it to themselves and to their organizations to make sure that this isolation does not impact their effectiveness. There are three steps to mitigating loneliness in positions of leadership:

First is to accept the reality. Constantly denying these emotions in exchange for a (false) sense of self-assurance is exhausting. Leaders should take a moment each day to process and accept how complex their responsibilities can be. The more accepting a leader is of this reality, the easier it will be to seek and accept support in dealing with it.

Second is to seek support, as a reliable support system is crucial to senior leadership achievement, and they should be cultivating a group of trusted advisors – a personal ‘board’.

In many cases, learning to accept feedback from this group of advisors can be a challenge in itself, especially if the leader has created an armor of hubris or overconfidence. Peeling away these layers and learning to accept feedback from trusted advisors ultimately makes for a more resilient leader.

Last but not least, the leader needs to keep moving and maintain momentum. The burden of isolation can often lead to inaction, to feeling “frozen” and unable to process the next step or the next decision. Tackling the major obstacles head-on will increase confidence and make the next big judgment call easier.

These decisions, no matter how complex, should be approached by gathering data, looking to advisors for feedback and support, making the decision and then moving on to the next problem or opportunity. While leaders must not forget to include their team in the deliberation process, it should be remembered that the final choice is ultimately theirs.

Al Worden recognized the difference between being alone and being lonely. As leaders we too need to recognize the difference and when at times it seems that we are perhaps isolated, we should accept the reality of the role, look to our trusted advisors and keeping pushing on……

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