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Leading with Character: Alone but not Lonely

Life seems to move so quickly, and another holiday season is already upon us. Although there are common themes such as joy, giving, and gratitude my experience is the holiday season means different things to different people. And, for those who strive to lead with empathy, that’s important to understand. Leaders need to know there can be a lot of loneliness during the holiday season, and that for some people it’s an incredibly joyous time and for others it’s bittersweet or even sad.

A Christmas to Remember
To me, the holiday season is a time for celebration, but it’s also a time for reflection and a search for meaning. Yet it wasn’t always that way. When I was a very young child, Thanksgiving was all about a big, fun meal, including the fight over who got one of the turkey drumsticks! Christmas was all about the presents under the tree, and whether we got what we asked for. Then I grew up and joined the US Coast Guard, where I served on ships as a cutterman.

My holiday season reality was a lot different then. I was often at sea or on duty—away from family and friends; perhaps with shipmates, but sometimes I found myself alone on the holiday. I recall one Christmas day during a port call on the voyage down to begin a five-month Deep Freeze deployment to Antarctica. I spent Christmas all by myself hiking up a mountain, Bob’s Peak, on New Zealand’s South Island. How majestic it was at the top to look across through the mist at the surrounding peaks and to gaze down upon the seemingly faraway village of Queenstown. What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! Although I was alone, I was not lonely, and actually felt closer to Jesus. That was truly a Christmas to remember.

Several years ago, I was having a conversation with one of my nephews—a young man in his early 20’s who had moved far away from friends and family and had just started a challenging new job. He was single, didn’t know anyone, and most of his coworkers were considerably older and married. I asked if he was adapting okay despite often being alone. He answered, with a smile, “Aunt Sandy, I can be alone but not lonely.” That phrase struck a chord. It hearkened me back to my Christmas on the mountaintop in New Zealand.

Leading Self
The ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, taught his students that to have a life worth living, one must “know thyself.” I believe the ability to “be alone but not lonely” comes when people learn to lead themselves, which requires knowing who they are. Developing a deep understanding of who you are enables you, like my nephew, to be comfortable in your own skin. It’s the first step in understanding and developing your emotional intelligence, which includes self-awareness, empathy, compassion, self-care, social skills, and more.

We live in a world of over-stimulation, entitlement, and the expectation of instant gratification…often presuming our well-being should come from someone or something else. But I’ve learned from experience that we don’t have to depend on others for joy or happiness; rather, we can find those feelings by turning inward, where we’re likely to discover strength we may not have known we had.

Tools for Learning to Lead Oneself
Here are a few of but many ways you can learn to lead yourself, and hence increase your emotional intelligence. Developing a more robust knowledge of yourself and learning how to lead yourself (and others), will help you discover how to be alone but not lonely during the holiday season and into the new year.

  • Take a personality test. When I discovered I was an introvert, that helped me understand my being more reserved wasn’t because I was anti-social, but because I need my downtime.
  • Contemplate your personal core values—the qualities that define your character and determine the kind of person and leader you are or will become. These are lasting values that are part of your identity, not circumstantial values that change over time.
  • Think about where you feel most comfortable at work or play: do you prefer teams or individual activities? Do you prefer getting together with one friend for lunch, or a group of friends for a party?
  • Consider whether you prefer a walk in the woods, a stroll by the sea, or a day touring the city.
  • Challenge yourself to do something new and different that will test you and expose strengths or weaknesses to help guide your choices. Yes, this can be risky and intimidating, but the axiom, “experience is the best teacher” is undeniably true.

Look in the mirror: What can you do this holiday season to continue your personal self-development and to help others learn to lead themselves?

Please join me again next week for more on Leading with Character.

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