“The moment I sat down, everyone at the table stopped laughing.”

Jane, a newly minted PI, recounts her experience from a faculty award dinner she attended.

“I noticed the bold italic print under my name-tag that said, ‘Principal Investigator’, while everyone else’s said either postdoc, grad student, or tech.” This was her first time in a public setting as a PI.

“It was the first time I felt that I was treated differently. I quickly understood what my role was, and how everyone would view me from now on.” She sighs. “It was the first time I felt truly alone.”

The feeling of “leadership loneliness” is a familiar concept in the business world. However, the feeling might not leave an emotional impact until someone is “labeled” with the leadership status. It’s that emotional impact that codifies the realities of their position.

No matter how much I tell young faculty members or managers that they’ll be viewed in a different light, they don’t acknowledge it until they experience an ostracizing moment, like Jane did. Afterwards, some fall prey to the “leadership loneliness” disorder.

However, they must realize it’s their position, not their vision that’s creating their “loneliness”.

While this experience isn’t necessarily a bad one, it can have prolonged ill effects if a junior PI uses this moment as a focal point. I try to reduce that burden by offering ways to cope and focus their mindset.

Leadership isn’t about leading people. Leadership is about having the courage to go first.

Therefore, while your role may change labels from postdoc to PI, the goal (and vision) stays the same. So, staying focused and having the courage to go first includes some of those awkward social interactions.

The next time you encounter a socially awkward experience, think to yourself that others may just be waiting to see what you do so they can follow your lead.

Here are 4 other tips to stave off leadership loneliness. Have the courage to be the first to:

  1. Take interest. Introduce yourself first. Ask what the other person is working on, or is interested in.Take interest in him/her, and (s)he’ll take interest in you.
  2. Speak up. Whenever there’s a political problem, or a social issue that needs solving, say something. Most often, others are thinking the same thing.
  3. Try something new. If there’s a risky project or collaboration, do it. Don’t wait for others to suggest it. Try it and others will be encouraged to get out of their own comfort zone.
  4. Fail. When trying something new, most often you will fail. Show others it’s okay to “fail”. Then show them how to recover, and to try it again.

While leadership can “feel” lonely, that feeling is often a selfish and unproductive mindset.

However, the reward of leading others is the true nature of independent scientific explorations. Showing others new ways of looking at the world can create and nurture lasting relationships. These relationships will never leave you feeling lonely. This is why your name is labeled, “Principal Investigator”. Be the first to invest in those relationships.

When was the last time you felt lonely? Who did you expect to be there for you? Leave a comment below.

Let us invest in your relationships. Contact us.

To your success.