It’s a truism older than the hills: leaders must at times make decisions that do not make other people happy. Because such decisions involve confidence, sensitivity and the use of individuated authority, the process may cause those who lead to come up against their biggest adversary — themselves. Lonely at the top means making judgments that no one else actually can share. Perhaps this is a matter of implementing a personal vision or making a tough decision about who will get resources and who will not. Perhaps it will come down to choosing who will succeed and who won’t.
Here the path inevitably leads to a cave where the imagination and projections and past conditioning of the leader come forward. The flashing lights and passing shadows on the walls of the cave, like those of Plato’s Cave, may result in self-deception or escapism. Whenever a leader makes a decision while chained to those private walls, there is risk although in reality there may not be another way. Even if the numbers back it up, even if the decision solves an obvious problem, even if some people, even key people already agree, individual decisiveness risks controversy, and controversies can become in their worst case devastating. People naturally observe the fall-out and depending on what that is, the worst of it can be what happens for the person who made the call and who now internalizes the uncomfortable outcome.
People yearn for safety in an unsafe world and blindly task those in leadership roles with providing it to them. Yet the leaders themselves may operate in a culture unsoftened by any such ethic. From up, down and sideways, the risk may be there implicitly and explicitly. It may be incredibly easy for others to stand back from the leader who decides as they evaluate and take sides, hypothesize motives, bad mouth or back stab or say nothing at all while others do so. The leader feels this, of course, and may hesitate, a part of an ever-present temptation to deflect, minimize, rationalize, assign responsibility elsewhere and generally pull away from genuinely stepping up to the plate; from being true to oneself and one’s responsibility in a visible, accountable way. How the leader does not yield to this temptation is what makes their leadership real.
This is one of those places in the discipline of leading where receiving advice about what decision to make is more common but often less valuable than simply having a friend or colleague be present while facing the darkness of the cave. Such presence can help dispel the past, unwritten, isolating cultural rules that suggest leaders should be lonely, should be quiet about their own journeys through the underground, except in superficial, carefully rehearsed ways.
Which, of course, is pure nonsense. Those who try to hold in all the fear or pretend no cave is too dark for them, or worse, that they have no cave at all, who are in this way in denial — they are the ones to worry about. The cave, after all, is meant to be there, part of the tale of human life with which we can and do identify, part of the way we find out who we think we are and are humbled, and if lucky have an opportunity to claim our courage. We learn about reality from facing those pictures on the walls, our hallucinations; learn about about kindness and humanity from attending to our worst missteps, misinterpretations and bad choices.
What good and effective leaders do is share their journey and learn to help one another as equals not superiors, becoming stronger and more enlightened via a shared passage through the darkness of individual challenges and private dilemmas. In this way they develop openness, gravitas and credibility.
One might say, extending the metaphor, that in front of every cave is a possible campfire where we share our stories and get and give help — while looking deeply into the self-same flames.