Commentary … Leadership Doesn’t Have To Be Lonely

Comedian Mel Brooks famously quipped: “It’s good to be king” … comedically capturing public sentiment on leadership. That’s certainly the perception of CEOs, whether of a for-profit or nonprofit organization. As a former CEO of a well-known, national charity, I can tell you that in many ways, it is.

Everyone always thinks of the benefits and perks of being a CEO — and there are many. On most decisions, you have the final say. You’re in the spotlight and you are the person with whom everyone wants to speak, making media appearances and hob-knobbing with corporate sponsors and major donors. And let’s not forget, you probably make more money than everyone else on staff.

The flip side to those benefits is that you are also the person who is responsible. For everything. For everyone. All of the time. That’s an awesome and heavy responsibility. It’s something we don’t often talk about publicly. But, we should.

As the head of your organization, there’s no shortage on the number or variety of challenges that you’ll face – financial, public relations, personal. I know that during my tenure as CEO of Wounded Warrior Project the challenges were seemingly endless, like the time in our early start-up years when I took myself off payroll and cashed in my 401(k) so we could keep paying staff and running programs. Or, there was the time that we advocated so aggressively for legislation to support family caregivers of severely wounded veterans that I was summoned to a meeting in Washington, D.C., to be taken to task by very senior White House officials. Finally, there was the well-known time that I literally ended up, not in a good way, on the proverbial front page of The New York Times.

But looking back on all these challenges, my toughest day as CEO was when a veteran died at one of our events. Died on my watch.

On a personal level, I wanted to pause and process my grief like everyone else. But as CEO, I still had to take charge and lead, even when it was the most solemn and difficult of responsibilities. I needed to accompany first responders to identify the body of this young veteran. I needed to call the family and deliver heartbreaking news to grieving parents. I needed to tell the staff and veterans at the event that we lost one of our own, and quickly bring in counseling support to help them cope.

All of this was happening while negotiating with members of the press to prevent this private tragedy, a veteran who died of natural causes, from becoming a public, on-camera spectacle.

I can tell you that on days like that, you feel the full weight of the responsibility that comes with your position. I can also tell you that on those most challenging days, when you need support the most, you realize just how isolating the CEO position can be.

Who can you turn to for advice and help? Your staff is likely no better positioned than you are to navigate the crisis. Your friends and family can offer personal support, but they cannot understand or shoulder your professional burdens. Unless you’re very fortunate, even your board of directors might lack the time or experience to provide the support and advice you need.

So, why am I writing this piece? Am I telling you this just to emphasize that you are truly alone on those hardest of days? Of course not. I’m writing to share the lesson I learned, hard, over time. On my most difficult days I found my best support and advice came from other CEOs. Over the years I was fortunate to have cultivated a peer network of CEOs from other nonprofits. They all understood the job, had faced similar challenges, and felt the same weight of responsibility. For all those reasons, those colleagues helped me the most when I was facing challenges.

In my more than 20 years working in senior nonprofit positions, I can’t tell you how frequently I’ve sensed from other nonprofit leaders that they’ve experienced the same feelings of pressure and isolation. One of the most important pieces of advice I can share with you is how important it is to develop a network and engage peers with whom you can share your struggles and provide advice to one another.

If you don’t have a broad peer network with the time and experience to provide that support, you can engage a coach or advisor who can offer guidance on how to navigate the challenges you and your organization are facing. Whomever it is, find that source of comfort and expert counsel.

Because, while it may sometimes be good to be king, it is never good to be alone.

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Steven Nardizzi is CEO of Paragon Strategic Insights in New York City. His email is snardizzi@paragonstrategicinsights.com