Leadership isolation: it’s lonely up here!

Leadership can be a lonely job

Many senior leaders in higher education experience isolation when they reach higher positions in their universities. In this blog, Martin McCracken shares some of the key findings to emerge from recent research into the Leadership Foundation’s Top Management Programme (TMP), linked to the issue of isolation.

Although knowledge, skill, drive and ambition are clearly vital to achieve the ambition of reaching a leadership position, we must also recognise that in modern organisations, regardless of sector or industry, establishing and cultivating a network of close trusted colleagues with whom we can work collaboratively will be critical. Therefore, we need to invest time and energy in nurturing the right kind of relationships which will support us at different stages of our career.

However, if and when we are in the most senior roles we may find ourselves in a new quandary: we would still like to tap into our internal networks, but realise that our new role and associated responsibilities compromise these established relationships with our most trusted friends and professional confidants. At the base level, we may now hold line management responsibility for some in this group, which may erode some of the old relationship certainties that were taken for granted.

Also, we will increasingly move in different circles due to our new leadership role, which can result in a scenario where we find ourselves missing out on valuable information originating from the network where we once were core members. In addition, given the changes in the relationship and power dimensions, certain colleagues may become more suspicious of our intentions and more distant, while others may try to better insulate themselves politically from perceived disruptive change and begin to display what might be termed as uncritical ‘cheerleading’ of our actions.

All of this can impact upon our effectiveness as leaders and ultimately there is a real threat that we begin to experience what has been termed as ‘executive isolation’ (Ashkenas, 2017), which is characterised by the erosion of our most trusted networks. Meanwhile as our workload and responsibilities increase, we may find ourselves continually surrounded or ‘crowded’ by people, as we get caught up in a seemingly endless round of meetings and events.

The end result is a feeling of frustration where increasing demands on a leader’s time leave little space to reflect, recharge or plan for the future. So, what can leaders who find themselves in such a precarious position do to address the negative effects of isolation? How can they reinvigorate their networks and who do they now turn to for advice and guidance on the manifold issues linked to organisational vision, strategy and mission setting on which, as senior leaders, they are now supposed to be expert?

From our research into the Top Management Programme it is clear that a progamme of this nature is invaluable in offering senior leaders an opportunity to come together and reflect upon the salient issues of the day for their universities and the higher education sector as a whole. What emerged most strongly when we spoke to TMP alumni was the power of the programme to erode some of the worst effects of executive isolation.

The vast majority of TMP alumni (over 50 participated in in-depth interviews, and a further 95 completed a survey linked to their experience of the programme) described how interacting with like-minded colleagues offered them a route towards replenishing their social capital networks and building awareness or, as one explained, “turbo charging your knowledge of the sector”. Also, clearly linked to the concept of leadership isolation was the fact that the TMP impact groups offered what one alumni referred to as a “safe space”.

Impact groups are the participant-driven element of TMP, participants meet regularly to discuss issues they face – particularly difficulties – and then test in action the ideas arising from that discussion. Finding this safe and secure place is vitally important for leaders in the higher education sector who often work in politically-charged environments. It was clear from comments made by alumni that having the opportunity to interact with like-minded leaders in the sector or “test stuff out with peers” as well as “step back and look at what happens in other universities in another environment” was considered essential.

Perhaps the best illustration of the value attached to the impact groups and networks they created was borne out by the fact that many groups continued to meet long after the formal TMP proceedings had been wrapped up. It was not uncommon to hear of alumni groups still keeping in contact for many years, meeting maybe as often as two or three times a year. As we listened to the testimonies of those we interviewed, we realised that such meetings were viewed as vitally important and many looked forward to these ‘get-togethers’ as offering a cathartic experience and a real opportunity to get away from  busy roles and reflect deeply with like-minded people.

Ultimately the last word on this is illustrated by the words of one alumni who remarked: “I guess sometimes you feel a bit isolated in a leadership role in your own institution and actually realising that everybody else has similar problems and you are not alone can be energising, but also then seeing different contexts and slightly different solutions that you can adapt back to your own institution.”

So, to conclude, we can clearly appreciate that leadership isolation can be a problem, but undertaking a programme like the TMP can be an effective way of addressing this as it can allow leaders to develop more effective networks as well as offering them some much needed structured time out to reflect and take stock of their aspirations.

Martin McCracken is a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Ulster University and also leads the research study evaluating the TMP ‘Leadership Journeys: Tracking the Impact and Challenge of the Top Management Programme’. Find out more about his research into management development, leadership and change.

Nominations are open for TMP 43, the deadline is Friday July 6. Find out more about the TMP Alumni group.

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