Leadership Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely

Jean Johnson

Over my career in coaching, I’ve found the phrase “It’s lonely at the top” to be very true. When you’re facing a difficult relationship with a board member or trying to navigate a mission-led organization through a significant change, or just dealing with everyday pressures it can be easy to second guess yourself. Loneliness is not reserved for executive directors and CEOs; I’ve seen how any position of leadership or management can feel a sense of isolation, especially when you’re the one leading a new initiative, working to shift a culture, or facing an organizational challenge. Given how many changes we know nonprofit leaders are facing (and knowing that burnout it a real thing!), it is important that they are prepared for both technical and adaptive leadership skills, in work and in life. One of the most effective ways of doing this, in my experience, is through Leaders Circles®.

“While this approach sounds simple, I’ve seen it have profound influence on a person’s sense of purpose, clarity, and confidence.”

Jean Johnson

I’ve been a Leaders Circles coach with Propel Nonprofits for three years and have been working as an independent leadership coach since 2008. As a Leaders Circles coach, I meet monthly with groups of 5-7 leaders at similar points in their career journey to help them become more effective in their roles. While leadership can feel lonely, I’ve found this to also be true: nonprofit leaders share many of the same challenges. In Leaders Circles, the challenge brought to the group that day is frequently shared by one or more of the other members. Issues that come up can range from finding balance in the busy nonprofit leader role to supervisory challenges and navigating relationships with board members and key stakeholders.

A Safe Space for Nonprofit Leaders

My coaching experience has taught me what is unique, especially in the nonprofit world, is having a place where you can productively talk through these challenges with trusted peers in a space that is completely confidential.  It’s a space to be fully open and vulnerable, to put challenges on the table without fear of judgement or other negative repercussions. It’s a space that feels very rich and supportive.

This is different than venting to a spouse, a coworker, or an ally; in a Leaders Circle, you bring your challenge, a request of the group, and your own experience to share with others. The group members offer observations, questions, and some of their own experience to help each member identify solutions; provide a new frame on the challenge; and ultimately, help each other gain the confidence to execute solutions.

Each circle starts with a personal check-in, connecting with each other as people, knowing that we are more than our work. Every circle provides time for silence and reflecting on what will be the most pressing issue of the day and what support is needed. From there, each person gets approximately 20 minutes in which to share the situation they’re facing and ask for specific kinds support (everything from “ask me questions to help me think this through” to “I need to vent”), then would welcome the chance to explore strategies you’ve used successfully in similar situations.

The group members are not there to consult or fix the issue but add their own lived experience with a similar issue, name what they are seeing in the situation, or simply affirmation that the person is on the right track. At the end of each circle, members generally set an action item to complete before we meet again. There are sometimes tears, always laughter, and people always leave with a sense of comfort and courage.

The Value of Vulnerable Gathering

While this approach sounds simple, I’ve seen it have profound influence on a person’s sense of purpose, clarity, and confidence. When I asked current Leaders Circles members I work with what value this group provides, these were some of their answers:

  • An affirming, safe space for feedback and support
  • Support to help combat impostor syndrome
  • Being with people in comparable roles who are dealing with similar issues
  • A catalyst for personal and professional growth
  • A chance to learn practical things I can apply
  • A reminder that things will be fine
  • A break from daily work itself – circles provide a type of self-care

These responses are why I believe in peer group coaching. I love coaching nonprofit leaders because they are doing incredibly important work. I frequently remind my circles that everything we do in our circle has an impact not just within the group, but within our larger ecosystem. Each one is doing work that really matters in the community. Being in a Leaders Circle helps them to do that work better, and in turn, spills over into healthier relationships with their coworkers, community members, other support networks, and ultimately leads to a more supported and well-led nonprofit sector.

If you’re interested in learning more about Leaders Circles or want to apply to join one yourself, visit https://www.propelnonprofits.org/services/leaders-circles/.

Staff Author

Jean Johnson