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Get Away – Conferences Combat Loneliness

Posted on April 29, 2022


Nobody is lonely, right?

Today’s Buzz is by Joe Warren, Assistant City Manager in Atchison, Kansas. Joe is available at LinkedIn or at [email protected]


What I’m reading: Many things on theathletic.com – I’m a former sportswriter – it’s what Sports Illustrated used to be.

What I’m watching: Local News as much as possible.

What I’m listening to: My childhood friend Andy McKee – check him out on YouTube.


In a 2012 article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review, Thomas Saporito wrote about the loneliness that comes with being a CEO. If you are a city administrator or a city manager, you are obviously the CEO of your city’s organization. But it isn’t just the head honcho of an organization that can experience loneliness. Any position of leadership can be lonely, especially if that leadership is structurally defined and much of your day-to-day work is done with those who report to you. The traditional paradigms of hierarchal leadership have led some to put up walls with those who report to them. The logic is sound. We don’t want to create a friendship with someone we may have to discipline, or heaven forbid, let go, down the line.

I’d argue that the hierarchal approach is outdated and inefficient, but that is another topic for another day. But what isn’t outdated is the idea of loneliness in leadership. Whether by hierarchal structure or driven by a natural independence borne from uncommon internal drive, it can be a struggle when leading others.

A study by Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs feel lonely, of which 61% believe that loneliness affects their job performance. If more than 1 in 4 people in leadership are not just feeling lonely but having loneliness impact their job performance, that is a major issue of which emerging leaders need to be aware.

In his article, Saporito recommends three steps to mitigating feelings of loneliness: 1. Acknowledge the feelings to make them real; 2. Seek a support system of trusted advisors – other CEOs, retired former leaders, anyone you trust the opinion of and look up to; 3. Tackle a big project that requires gathering data and external feedback to solve, building in some human interaction that will naturally come with the process of finding a solution.

In local government it is important that you have two types of people as part of your inner circle: Those in your career field and those completely removed from your career field.

That is sound advice, but I’d like to add a fourth step: Attend conferences. Conferences are often viewed strictly from the lens of professional development and/or seeking out of best practices. Those are two important components of a conference that shouldn’t be underestimated, but it is my belief that the social component of professional conferences is just as important. Building a network of similarly minded or similarly experienced professionals in your field can be useful in many ways.

One obvious benefit of building that network is that you may need to call upon these folks as part of a future job hunt – and just as importantly be there for someone else in their search. But the greatest beauty of a big professional network is that you can lean on those people to help fight loneliness. A phone call. An email. A lunch or a drink after work. And in most cases, these people know what you are going through.

“Since early in my career I’ve been able to build connections at conferences,” Emporia, Kan., City Manager Trey Cocking said. “The result of that is when I need to call another government official, they know me, and are always willing to help.”

In local government it is important that you have two types of people as part of your inner circle: Those in your career field and those completely removed from your career field. Those people who aren’t in local government are useful to help you escape the day-to-day minutia of public service. Unplugging is unequivocally important. But having people in your circle that are in your career field is just as vital. These are the people you call upon when you need advice or are struggling and need to simply vent. Having colleagues outside your organization but in local government to confide in gives you someone who can naturally empathize with your situation and help keep you from feeling so isolated. Cocking mentioned the idea of having someone to call upon who is always willing to help, but don’t think for a second that help has to be limited to a technical problem or a strictly professional paradigm. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and real because there are others in public service who have felt lonely, stressed, overwhelmed, or even scared. That might be your reality, but that isn’t just your reality. Many, many others have felt that reality as well. Whether it be a change in leadership above you (elected official or not), or a personal situation with friends or family. We are all just people trying to find our way and dealing with whatever this crazy life has to offer.

If you are like me, you might dedicate much of your life to your profession, and much of your time to doing what you can to improve the world for others in your community. You might not naturally connect to someone in your community or feel like that is an appropriate connection to make. By putting yourself out there to attend conferences, you can make connections that can help get you through the difficulties of this profession and this life.

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