I’ve been intrigued by lone wolves for as long as I can remember. I used to think it was of value, something to aspire to. Starting my own business many years ago was the answer to that desire. Unable to balance out my need to people-please with the constant emotional instability of many places of employment, I struck out on my own. It was the perfect solution in my mind: complete control of my environment, and I would need no one. Every success, and every failure, would be all mine. Being a lone wolf would also allow me to go off and create in secret. Brimming with creative ideas, yet full of fear about putting myself out there, being a lone wolf felt safe. I was able to hide. Let’s just say I took to being a lone wolf like a duck to water.
After some time, I began to realize that there were some downsides to being a lone wolf. I was lonely. I didn’t really have anyone with whom to share my ideas, hopes or fears. Nor did I have a community to pass time with. I actually missed the office camaraderie, dysfunctional as it might have been. I lost lots of time. Being a lone wolf allowed me to work on my own timeline. I had no one to answer to and I got stuck in a sea of perfectionism. The first two years I was in business were basically me, a computer, and an obsession about creating the perfect website, perfect business card, and perfect brochure. Because I was too scared to invest in myself or my business, I was a lone wolf in all aspects: marketing, sales, PR, content, and client interaction.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of being a lone wolf though is the high risk of fatality. Lone wolves in the wild are at risk for all kinds of things. And when they get injured or sick, there is no pack to protect them, care for them, or defend them. Likewise, when I was unable to work, when I was feeling down, or scared, or depressed, when I wanted to take a vacation, there was nobody there to support me. When we don’t have people to support us, we can become almost paralyzed in our own self-loathing. This is a fatal experience for many businesses that are operated by lone wolves.
I thought my time period as a lone wolf ended when Beth and I formed The Circle Up Experience. But as it turns out, lone wolves die hard. We are wily and determined. Good at hiding, and even better at keeping things to ourselves. After years of practice, I am still a lone wolf a lot of the time. I won’t speak to Beth’s current situation here, but when I met her, she was a lone wolf too. Turns out lone wolves can (and often do) find each other. They create a comfortable alliance of complicity and while this helps resolve many of the things I mentioned above, two lone wolves are still not a pack. I know that my lone wolf is still there because the minute that things with Circle Up feel sticky, or scary, or off, I am already mentally figuring out how I might be able to be OK even if this whole thing goes south. The refusal to be part of a pack, whether you’re one lone wolf or if there are a few of you manifests in many different ways (maybe you’ll see yourself in some of these):
I don’t use Facebook much. I defend this by saying that I’m not interested in wasting my time on social media, but mostly it’s because sharing about myself on social media feels like an intrusion into my privacy. And I don’t want to let people know too much about me.
Refusal to rely on my social support system when things aren’t ok. I don’t nurture my social support nearly as much as I should. So when things aren’t going well, it can feel clunky to call on it. I’ve been working on this aspect of myself for a while now, and it’s slowly improving, but it can still feel super unnatural for me.
Going off into my own world when problems arise. I used to call this “problem-solving” but it can also be called abandonment or hiding or avoidance or running…depends on the circumstance.
I have been through many assistants over the years. I often use the excuse that it’s just easier to do things myself. But that’s not true. Rather my impatience around teaching someone new skills, or allowing someone into the inner workings of my business is uncomfortable and I want to retreat to my cave.
I frequently fantasize about going on long-term silent retreats, becoming a reclusive writer, or never leaving my farm again. Anything I can do to just stay in my own domain.
I’m a bad communicator. I don’t tell people what I’m up to, I don’t share enough, and I wait until the last minute or avoid communicating all together.
As it turns out, I know a lot of lone wolves. As they say, it takes one to know one. And we generally leave each other alone, understanding the unwritten rules of lone wolf-dom. But more and more in my work, I’m seeing the side effects that lone wolves have on an organization (in addition to how we hurt ourselves). Having a lone wolf on your team means you may frequently feel confused about what that person is doing, where they are going, what they are thinking, or if they are really part of the team or not. Most lone wolves have one foot out the door. The energy around that is palpable.
We are often lone wolves because we have been hurt by something, or tossed out of a different pack, or left to our own defenses for a long time. We protect ourselves by being completely self-sufficient. So how do you reach out to a lone wolf? In my own experience, I have been deeply humbled and moved to tears when I realize how much people want to be part of my pack. So, if you know a lone wolf, one of the surest ways to get through the armor is to gently remind them that you want to be part of their pack, that you want to be part of what they have going on. You should expect to have that conversation many times. Being a lone wolf dies hard. I expect that there will always be traces of this in me. But I’m done glorifying that role anymore. I see it for what it really is: lonely, often sad, and full of risk.
I’m making my way towards my pack. I know who they are. I see them. I need them. And I want to be part of them.
Come join the conversation over in our Facebook group. We work together every week to deepen our understanding of leadership, relationship, and life. We’d love to see you there!
Susan McCusker is the co-founder of The Circle Up Experience. She and her partner, Beth Killough, offer people the opportunity to interact with horses in order to learn more about themselves, reconnect with the natural elements of leadership, and transform their human herds.