Lonely At The Top?

December 15, 2015Leadership

“The higher we rise, the more isolated we become: All elevations are cold.”

Stanislas de Boufflers, Le Libre Arbitre, 1808

No-one ever became a leader because it makes them popular. In fact, business leaders (not just at the top – leaders at all levels in the organisation) are generally some of the loneliest people in the organisation. At this time of year, when you go to work in the cold, rain and gloom and come home in the dark, barely seeing daylight from one end of the day to the other, isolation at work can feel particularly difficult. Not even the joys of Christmas help – in fact, when stressed and pressurised leaders have to schedule ‘happy’ time with their family, that can often emphasise how alone they feel at work.

In 2012, The Harvard Business Review published an article by Thomas Saporito, chairman and chief executive of a leadership consultancy, RHR International. The article, It’s time to acknowledge CEO loneliness, cited a survey carried out by RHR  which showed that half of CEOs experience feelings of loneliness in their role and of this group, 61% felt that it hindered their performance. First-time leaders were particularly susceptible; almost 70% of new leaders who felt lonely said it was affecting their performance.

The article argued that accepting that feelings of isolation and loneliness were part of the lot of the CEO was the first step to addressing it. I think that’s very true – this isn’t something that should be swept under the carpet. It’s important to acknowledge that it happens, and to do everything possible to address it. If a leader isn’t performing well, it’s less likely that their team will perform to the upmost of their ability either. A lonely CEO isn’t good for culture, for decision-making or for motivation.

So what is behind leader loneliness? More often than not, it’s a combination of time pressure – simply not having time to do everything you want to do – and having no-one to discuss your worries with. CEOs and leaders throughout the organisation have (or should have, or something is seriously wrong) clear strategic goals, and the risk of failing to meet them is a constant source of anxiety. These strategic goals can often get drowned out by the pressures of day-to-day fire-fighting and management that is inevitable in any organisation – a constant list of tasks which eats into thinking and planning time. It’s easy to feel that things are slipping out of control – but who can you tell that to?

Leaders are in a difficult position – they have worked hard to get where they are, but they then find that there are very few people who understand them and who will give them a straightforward, honest opinion. Some academics, notably Robert Sutton, professor of management at Stanford University in the US, have also warned that leaders can become self-absorbed and less in tune with the perspective of others. The remedy to both problems is to have a trusted confident.

The leadership expert and author Warren Bennis puts it like this: “Have some group that will tell you the truth and to whom you can tell the truth…All you can do is make sure there’s some way of understanding reality beyond what you know yourself.”

It’s also about belonging; it’s impossible for a leader to be a genuine member of the team at work, so they need someone, or a group of people, who makes them feel supported and understood. Dr Brene Brown, research professor at the University of Houston and a specialist in vulnerability (check out her TED talks) says this: “We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.”

A strong connection and trusted relationship with someone you trust is an absolute necessity for a good leader. At Space2BE we see it as one of our most important roles – we work with many leaders in all types of organisations, providing that shoulder to lean on, a sounding board and the provider of an independent, dispassionate, objective view. We all need that someone, especially leaders.

Try reading:

The Leadership Shadow: How to recognize and avoid derailment, hubris and overdrive, by Erik de Haan & Anthony Kasozi.