On Building a Leadership Palisade
And why it matters.
Today I am writing about something which I realized many of us feel at some point, but don’t really talk about.
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Talking About Fences
It gets lonely as we grow older, right?
A friend texted as we chatted late in the night after respectively long workdays.
I told her I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. In fact, I have wondered about this frequently myself.
As we slowly climb the professional ladder, does it seem to get a little bit lonelier? Does it seem a tad bit more difficult to build deep friendships unlike how it used to be? When we think of sharing unabashed thoughts, do only limited people come to mind? Do we feel more guarded in opening up about our personal life?
For some time, I thought maybe I was the only one who feels this way. I felt that maybe I was the one who is unable to find the right people to gel with anymore. I thought that maybe this is because over the years my personality has somehow morphed.
But then, I met two of my oldest colleagues-turned-friends this weekend.
Over coffee, I started telling them the plot of a TV show I had been watching (Atypical, if you are curious). It is about a boy who is on the autism spectrum - and despite the right intent, I just couldn’t find the politically correct words to describe the plot. So I ended up describing it the best I could.
And then one of them remarked -
Isn’t it great that we have at least each other to be politically incorrect with?
We laughed at that moment. But this feeling is all too real.
I call it the Leadership Palisade - a subconscious mental fence we build around us as we grow professionally.
Leadership Palisade is like sitting at the edge of the subconscious mental fence, alone, peeking outside, yet being unable to let people in. (Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash)
Not Just an Executive Struggle
As I started researching this, I came across studies on CEO loneliness. One of them was a study by Suzan Bond, the former COO of a tech company and a leadership coach. She interviewed a ton of executives to understand their challenges and nearly each of them admitted to loneliness or isolation. She says -
“Throughout my career finding friends at work was easy. There were always people to go to lunch with, confide in, or have coffee with by video chat. When I became an exec, that changed. I didn’t have a confidante who I felt like I could just be myself with. I felt comfortable with the rest of the exec team but mostly we focused on the business at hand; we were too busy fighting fires to really connect as humans. It took concerted effort to create support systems to battle the loneliness.”
The more I talked to peers, I observed that this is not just an executive-specific struggle. This is something that new managers and mid-senior level professionals struggle with as well as they grow in their careers.
I am currently in the second decade of my career and trust me, I am not an introvert by any means. In fact, even my work has always required me to build networks and partnerships. So I have a fairly large professional network with whom I am well connected.
However, ask me to count the people that I could trust completely with my no-holds-barred thoughts. I could probably count them on my fingertips.
Why do you think this happens?
Well, let’s think about it. Perhaps as we grow in our careers, we do not need a set of friends anymore. Or maybe we become omniscient, so we do not need support from anyone. Or perhaps we start to dislike hanging out with like-minded people.
Of course, I am kidding!
Leadership Palisade is not due to a lack of intent, but rather mostly a function of access and priorities.
So why does it happen anyway? Well, two reasons.
One, Diminished Access
Organizations are typically pyramid-shaped. Imagine a large base of entry-level professionals, a smaller middle section of managers, a fraction of senior management at the top, and a single Head of the organization at the pinnacle of the pyramid (who reports to the Board).
As we make the treacherous climb up this leadership pyramid, our band of peers within the organization decreases. Also, being too close with people you are supposed to manage results in complicated workplace dynamics - so that is not a viable option either. Additionally, very often, there are limited growth opportunities to move upward in the management chain. So there is a subtle hint of competition between peers as well ( not always negative though). All of this together reduces our access to like-minded people who could have had the potential to become deep friends.
Two, Priority Pivots
While climbing this leadership pyramid, we also undertake a personal journey in parallel. Though not an absolute rule, but it is fairly common in our 20s and 30s, that we also decide to get married and (possibly) have kids. This is also the time we start growing and getting more responsibilities at work. Since non-work time becomes scarce, we end up prioritizing it for our partners/family. Late-night pub crawls often turn into diaper duties too.
And even if we ourselves are not caught up in these life pivots, we see that people around us are. The priority pivots of us (or people around us) limit the opportunities, flexibility, and time available to build friendships at work.
So Why This Matters?
It’s not that we never make friends at all once we start growing in our careers. But rather this -
As we grow personally and professionally, we become a lot more pragmatic and guarded in our interactions with others. This limits our possibilities to build new deeper unconditional friendships, unlike in the early professional years.
As new managers, executives and leaders, we might feel the burden of this subconscious mental fence more while switching roles, careers, and organizations and/or while transitioning through major life events.
As I was talking about this with a friend, she also reflected that leadership palisades could be contextual as well. Extroverts (who are used to building fast friendships at the workplace) might end up struggling to balance friendships with people they are expected to manage. This can be unlike introverts who might always have been comfortable with a limited circle.
Either way, this is important to talk about. Why?
Since it is crucial to realize that leadership palisade need not be a permanent state of being. The starting point is to acknowledge our own struggles with these subconscious mental barriers. Only then can we break our fences and find the right solutions that work for us!
In the next post, I will share how some of the amazing leaders (that I have worked with) dealt with their Leadership Palisades.
If you are with me so far, then I would love to hear your thoughts.
As we close for today, think about this -
Who are your three unconditional friends? (And then give them a buzz)
That’s all for now. Go shine!
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Very important insight, and yes, indeed, all of us end up being more cautious as we grow up. For most of us, god forbid if our professional colleagues see the people we were in college or the language we used with friends!
And therein I think lies the rub. As professionals, we have a lot more to guard and protect than as students and seekers - our reputations, our achievements, and most importantly, our perception as mature individuals who can be trusted with serious responsibilities like money, younger staff or projects!
Humans tend to impose the 'halo effect', both bright and dark, based on people's behaviour. We may perceive that a rough-talking executive is also a cheat and plagiarist, without there being any link between the two, or the vice versa. And that is a risk most responsible executives would not want to take.
Very important insight, but I think the answer will be in disaggregated careers, where personal reputations matter less than competence and I think that the pandemic-accelerated digital change is bringing that revolution faster than we expected.