I felt watched. Every small decision, scrutinized. At times it felt like surveillance.
Being a COO was like constantly being on stage. Wherever I moved, a permanently affixed spotlight followed. I wasn’t used to having an audience watching every twitch, every sentence, every decision — and having an opinion about it. At times, it threatened to paralyze me. It lured me closer to my perfectionism tendencies. Imperfect decisions and divided opinions made these urges nearly unbearable. While some applauded decisions privately, the criticism was loud and public.
Where my goal was to empower the team, some saw me as dismissive, unfeeling, and focused on profits. It seemed as if people looked right through me. Rather than seeing a person, they saw an amalgam of all the leaders before me. Some saw me as a stereotype. The person they portrayed me to be was unrecognizable from not only my own perceptions but from those who know me well. Chasms like this made me feel misunderstood and in turn, invisible as a human being. It was like being a cipher, unseen. At times I felt powerlessness, despite my power-laden title.
I’ve never felt as invisible as I did as a leader.
After a particularly difficult decision that was criticized publicly in Slack, I spent the weekend in a daze, wondering whether I made a mistake taking a leadership role. Before I became a leader, I expected there to be hard work and tough decisions. I didn’t expect to feel hypervisible and yet invisible at the same time.
Standing in front of someone but feeling unseen is confounding. Others may not consider that leaders feel this way. They may even think leaders don’t have a right to feel lonely or unseen given their conferred power. It’s hard to have empathy for someone with more power than us. We see their autonomy, think they have it made. We fail to see their struggles, fail to see their humanity.
As a leader, this disconnect is like standing in a crowded room with a megaphone in hand but everything comes out garbled. You shake the megaphone, wonder if it’s even working. You pat your cheek, grasp a strand of hair, stroke your arm, try to convince yourself that you are not the evil leader archetype from a movie. You try to prove to yourself that you are not invisible. You write down your values: make the table bigger, invite more to join; honesty even when it’s difficult; seek to understand, then to be understood. Reminders of what you believe as a north star. Hope they’ll be a bolster when confronted by those who insist you’ve lost your center, that you have no values, zero integrity.
How we think others see us (a psychological term called metaperception) provides a map guiding social interactions, which helps build relationships. The dissonance leaders experience between self-perception and the team’s perception can distort the map. Having a broken map warps our relationship with others and ourselves. We all long to be known, even those at the top. A wide gap between perception of self and external perceptions can make anyone doubt themselves. Doubt can creep in, turning into a lack of confidence or paralysis, delaying important decisions, robbing the team of a strong direction and vision.
Most don’t know first hand the challenges leaders face. They see the title, the credibility. They don’t see the hard decisions, the sleepless nights, the perilous decisions they face, the decision fatigue that sets in. They lack context about what leaders really do. To have compassion the team has to reach for compassion for a situation they’ve never encountered. This makes cognitive empathy (putting yourself in another’s shoes) difficult. Leaders holding more power further complicates understanding, making it harder to bridge the gap.
Feeling like you’re always being watched and yet never really being seen creates a confusing sort of dissonance. It’s hard to reconcile, the lack of resolution exhausting. It can make you question yourself, wonder what’s really true. Loneliness can beckon, burnout not far behind.
It’s tough to live in dissonance but it’s what leaders must learn to do. If they don’t, the role becomes harder, their mental health suffers. Accepting the incongruity was a turning point in my leadership journey. It helped me slough off the public criticism more easily and get back to serving the team. I found more sources of support outside of work. Being a leader was still challenging, but became less taxing on my well-being.