The Loneliness of Leadership

When I was invited to offer a reflection on the loneliness of leadership, I was excited — dare I say, even giddy — to get to work. Serving an apostolate whose primary focus is the care and support of our bishops and priests, I had more than enough content on the challenges of ministry and how isolating leadership can feel. Beyond the field experience though, as a new, first-time CEO, the topic resonated with me on a deeply personal level. All sorts of thoughts flooded my head at once: So many things to say, yet so few words allotted to say them. However, the last thought I had before putting pen to paper was, “Am I a fraud?” More on that later.

I have had the privilege to work at Catholic Leadership Institute for the majority of my career. So when I was elected CEO by the board of directors after 11 years of working alongside many team members in the apostolate, I understandably was nervous about many things. Would I do a good job? Was I ready? What would it mean for my young and growing family?

On the long list of worries, however, feeling lonely wasn’t one of them. These were my longtime colleagues. I knew them. They knew me. What a great gift to take on a leadership role in a community where that relationship is deep. Yet as soon as the news was shared, as soon as I moved into the literal and figurative corner office, there it was: loneliness. Though the move down the hall to the corner office was only a few feet, it seemed like a mile. It wasn’t that people acted differently after I became the boss; it was how different it felt. If that feeling wasn’t coming from their behavior toward me, why was I feeling that way? After almost two years in the role, and lots of coaching and reflection about things I have observed from some very fine priestly leaders, here are the pressures and some potential remedies of what “leadership loneliness” might be. Perhaps they might resonate with you in your priestly ministry.

The Pressure of Persona

In the famous amphitheaters of ancient Greece, actors used masks for two purposes. Masks helped to protect their identity and to project an identity. As leaders, sometimes we project an identity that attempts to meet the expectations we think others have of us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless the identity is incongruent with the expectations we have for ourselves, or the expectations that we believe God has for us.

When moving into a new role or assignment, we go with what we know. A first-time pastor might consciously or unconsciously think about the pastors under whom he served. Depending on the favorability of the experience, he might seek either to emulate that mentor or to reject that example based on what worked or didn’t work from his perspective. A seasoned pastor might try to apply his successful approach from the last parish to the next. The truth is that effective leadership, especially effective priestly leadership, is not normative; it’s prescriptive. It requires the priest always to be mindful of his own gifts and talents, to be in touch with the unique needs of the people in his community and consciously to choose the leadership response that will best serve the Lord.

For me as a first-time CEO, with the bulk of my experience at the same organization, I was projecting an identity of who I thought I needed to be based on the only experience I had, based on who I thought people expected me to be. What I missed was incorporating the unique person God created me to be. Without that critical piece of the puzzle, the puzzle felt incomplete. Dan as CEO felt incomplete. I was missing someone. I was missing myself.

The Pressure to Provide and Protect

As a father of four young children, the world became a much scarier place the moment our first child was born. I looked around and saw very clearly all the things that might bring potential harm to this baby, whom I wanted to protect more than anything else. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about the world’s dangers before I became a father. But I never had felt the burden of providing safety, sustenance and care for those who could not provide for themselves.

In my new role at CLI, the experience was the same. My level of knowledge didn’t change. After 11 years, I knew Catholic Leadership Institute’s challenges and opportunities inside and out. What changed was my level of responsibility in those challenges. I no longer could simply see a problem and hope it would get solved or suggest to my boss a solution that I didn’t have to implement. I felt the distance not so much between my team members and me, but more so between the decisions we all could make and the decisions only I could make. I felt the reality of being in a peer group of one — and it felt lonely.

Pope St. John Paul ll on Christ-Centered Leadership
“Spending time in intimate conversation with, and adoration of, the Good Shepherd, present in the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, is a pastoral priority far superior to any other. Every priest, who is a leader of his community, should attend to this priority so as to ensure that he does not become spiritually barren, nor transformed into a dry channel no longer capable of offering anything to anyone.

As priests, the weight of responsibility is only magnified. Catholic Leadership Institute surveyed more than 80,000 parishioners across almost 400 parishes in 22 dioceses in the United States and Canada. A parishioner today is nine times more likely to recommend their parish if they recommend their pastor and four times more likely to say the parish helps them grow spiritually if they recommend their pastor. The bottom line is this: You matter. A lot.

Beyond parishioners, the Church gives you care of all souls in your territory. You have all of the temporal and organizational responsibilities that any CEO does, except, on top of that, you have as your core responsibility the spiritual care and growth of a dynamic population of people. Until you’ve sat in that chair, you can’t relate. One can empathize, one can sympathize, but one truly can never know. Even after a decade of working closely with bishops and priests, I don’t know.

If the peer group doesn’t exist for you in the parish, how do you alleviate the loneliness? How do you find the care, the understanding, the support that all leaders need? You need to create the peer group outside of the parish. Catholic Leadership Institute has found that priests who have taken advantage of our Fraternal Forums or have created their own prayer groups or support groups among brother priests experience a great difference in their ministry.

Misery always loves company, but these opportunities, when done well, are much more than commiserating and venting. Priest groups can help leaders have a safe place to be mindful of their persona and a place where brother priests can call attention to blind spots that others within their parishes probably can’t offer. They can provide a mechanism for accountability and support so that you can continue to grow as leaders as you seek to help those within your community grow.

The Pressure to E-G-O

Fathers, here’s where I worried that I might be a fraud. In the interest of full transparency, and to punctuate the point, when I was invited to write this piece on the “loneliness of leadership,” my last thought was about Jesus. I am the leader of a Catholic apostolate writing for a publication that serves Catholic priests, and my last thought was that while loneliness is a feeling, we know it’s not the truth. We believe in an omnipresent God who loves us beyond comprehension.

We believe in a God who designed us perfectly for the purpose for which he created us. We know the victory has been won, and we don’t need to be successful as leaders; we simply need to be faithful, because he walks before us, beside us and behind us.

As leaders, the pressure of our ego, the pressure to “edge God out,” can be the most devastating and the most isolating. Yes, it’s important to be self-aware, but it’s even more important to be Christ-aware. In thinking about who we need to be in a moment of leadership, do we stop and invoke his example?

It’s important to recognize and treat seriously the responsibility entrusted to us. It’s even more important to understand that there is only one Lord and savior — and it is not us. When we have difficult decisions to make, do we stop and request his guidance? It is important to surround ourselves with a peer group. It is even more important to prioritize our prayer life so that Christ surrounds us in the only love that can ever truly satisfy a lonely heart.

We might hear or believe that “it’s lonely at the top.” Perhaps instead of looking down from where we are, we may want to look up to whose we are and realize that there is nowhere on earth we could ever be alone.

DAN CELLUCCI is a proud husband and father of four. He serves as the CEO of Catholic Leadership Institute, an apostolate focused on supporting all leaders in the Catholic Church.