Quiet reflection time and meaningful conversations with people we trust can fuel our leadership in many ways – relaxation, clarity of thinking, and candid feedback, to name a few.
Despite those benefits, most men I coach tell me they have little or no time for deep friendships, or for reflecting on the larger purpose of their lives. I notice this pattern with women leaders, too, but not as often.
In recent conversations with men of various ages, I have noticed what I will call “depth deprivation:” Rather than seeking the benefits of connected relationships and deep thinking, they settle for immediate outcomes and superficial interactions. I have plenty of examples.
Adrian, a sophomore class leader at an elite college, said: “I can’t really talk to my dad, and it’s rare for me to reach out to other men. I’m pretty much on my own.”
David, the 38-year-old managing partner of a real estate development firm, confessed the narrow scope of his daily routine: It’s basically my work and my family – that’s my life. I don’t have much time alone. When I do, I exercise.”
Angelina, whose 64-year-old husband owns a large company, told me a secret about her high-profile spouse. “He has thousands of acquaintances – we can’t go into a restaurant or club without being greeted by someone who knows him. But that’s deceiving, because he has no real friends. Most evenings he walks alone outside. What keeps him company is the cell phone in his pocket.”
Highly personal discussions over many years have revealed that most men in leadership positions do not regularly take time out to reflect on their dilemmas, decisions, and destiny. Those same men commonly report they do not have even one deep friendship.
That means if you are a man with a trusted friend and a habit of setting aside reflection time, and you happen to be a leader, you can safely assume you have a big advantage over your peers.
I don’t quite know what to make of the unscientific pattern I’ve described, but I do think it’s both real and disadvantageous. I’m also left with a few questions:
Do men and women value friendships and reflection time differently? It’s widely believed that women are better at connecting with other women than men are at connecting with men. How accurate is that generality?
Does the absence of close friends and quiet reflection speak more to lifestyle choice than to gender differences? Is out-of-control busyness the problem we ought to be looking at?
What’s the distinction between spending time alone and reflecting? How common is it to be alone while concentrating on work projects, responding to emails, and catching up on news and sports without ever taking the time to reflect?
To what extent is reflection time a luxury vs. a necessity? There’s always so much to get done. Who has the time to sit around thinking about the future, or about an important, global event, or about how to address a knotty relationship problem?
Drifting on the surface
Yet without deeper thinking and meaningful relationships, the decisions of leaders drift on the surface, dictated by impulse and anxiety. Personal support – knowing someone has your back – slips away. Isolation becomes normal, even in a crowd.
Depth deprivation functions like a trap. Traps work best when they are unseen and unanticipated. Here are some possible traps that work against strong friendships and reflection time:
The busy trap: Many leaders are addicted to doing and allergic to being. All addictions dance to the beat of comfort and avoidance. “I get things done by doing what I’m good at - what’s familiar and comfortable. By staying busy, I avoid the discomfort of intimacy with myself and others.”
The short-term trap: Anxiety may be temporarily quelled by short-term fixing and solving vs. long-term thinking and emotional investment. Friendships and reflection take time and presence. These investments offer non-material, lasting rewards - gratitude, humility, and a sense of belonging. Short-term results feed off adrenaline spikes that come and go. “I’m only as good as what I did yesterday.”
The success trap: Leaders are often achievement-driven. Many prefer the spotlight of recognition and material success to the enduring satisfaction of deeper engagement. Though it doesn’t have to be either-or, it often turns out that way. “I like a good challenge and work provides that. I trade connection for achievement. That way, I can better control the outcomes.”
When the leaders I speak with justify their drivenness by claiming that it produces good for the community and for their employees, I say, “Okay, I’ll buy that, but first let me ask you two questions:”
“How’s it going in your important relationships?”
“How’s your anxiety level?”