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Leadership development November 5, 2021

The solitude of the remote leader

a solo businesswoman lost in thought looks through a glass window at the city below
In our executive education course, a participant—let’s call her Eloïse—reported a leadership challenge to her peers. During the pandemic, she noted, her company’s board decided on a number of measures that changed how the team work.

The board also changed where. Just as her department was preparing to return to the office in a hybrid setup, she learned that her team was being moved to another location. The building was far less attractive than the former one: old, poor access by public transport, no parking opportunities, and a cafeteria with a bad reputation. She was tasked with communicating this decision to her team.

“During our next team video call, I announced the change,” she shared. “Dead silence. I see people shaking their heads unbelievingly. ‘I know this is not ideal,’ I say, ‘but you don’t need to come to the office every day. We will stick to one or two in-office days per week in the initial hybrid setup.’ No comments, no questions. We move to the next agenda point. After the meeting is done, I sit, staring at the screen. It felt like having a heavy stone in my stomach.”

Eloïse’s experience is not unique. Many organizations are making tough decisions to counteract the economic effects of the pandemic—leading to difficult conversations and challenging working conditions.  Leaders are dealing with increasing rates of employee burnout, mental health issues, and a loss of talent due to what LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky calls the “great reshuffle.” Leadership is also in flux, as many leaders undergo invisible transitions—with changes to the scope and nature of their jobs but without any changes to their official positions. Remote and hybrid work modes require leaders to “lead more” and to assume greater responsibility in connecting their teams and onboarding new team members. They need to use more of a coaching leadership style to achieve the level of autonomy and commitment distributed teams require.

Leaders are also called to be more empathetic with their teams. Yet, they have fewer opportunities to feel the team’s pulse, to discuss issues informally, and to access the emotional level of their teams. Leaders—like others during the pandemic—are experiencing a loosening of their distant networks, including peers and potential mentors. At the end of the day, Eloïse, like other leaders, is alone with the burden. No surprise that leaders, too, burn out at record rates.

What can Eloïse do to combat remote leadership solitude and its consequences?

Working with a mentor, a more experienced and knowledgeable person, can help leaders prepare for, manage, and review difficult conversations. While seemingly counterintuitive, reverse mentoring—working with a junior colleague – can also help to “walk in the shoes” of the team members, reflect, and get first-hand support. While many organizations don’t have formal mentoring programs (or, if they do, they are knotty), reaching out to a potential mentor or offering support to a mentee doesn’t need the sign-off from the CHRO.

Sharing experiences and receiving advice from peers—in the form of peer coaching or peer consultation groups—are often undervalued. In the case of Eloïse, her peer group in the leadership course came up with a number of practical ideas on how to better prepare or find remedies—while empathizing with the difficulty she experienced. Peer groups for leaders can be self-organizing and self-facilitating, requiring minimum external support and providing flexibility for their members to insert meetings into busy calendars.

We often see leadership as a solo activity. However, it is precisely the remote and hybrid setup that requires and allows for shared leadership, divvying up the tasks. Eloïse can ask a (junior) team member to lead the meeting so that she can focus on people and content. Or a subgroup of three team members can work on a project supervised by an experienced colleague. While it may not be easy sharing the limelight or having the trust to share leadership, it leads to more ownership, more accountability, and more initiative. It is also a great way for growing skills and preparing for your own formal leadership transition.

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