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Posted by on Aug 29, 2013 in Featured, Leadership | 10 comments

Lonely at the Top: Why Good Leaders Must Learn to Manage Loneliness

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Leaders spend their days surrounded by people, so the last thing they might expect is to feel alone. And yet for many CEOs, founders, and other leaders, being the person solely responsible for a company’s ultimate fate and direction, as well as the livelihood of its many employees can lead to feelings of true isolation and profound loneliness.

What determines someone’s loneliness is not the objective quantity of their relationships nor the extent to which they seem well liked or respected, but rather whether they perceive themselves to be emotionally isolated. As such, it is not a matter of how many people they have around them. Leaders, especially those at the top and those who are called upon to make crucial and often brutal decisions that impact the lives of many people, can easily feel as though they have no true peers, because sometimes they do not.

Leaders spend their days surrounded by people, so the last thing they might expect is to feel alone.

Despite how common it is for top leaders to experience loneliness, few leaders anticipate such feelings and fewer still know how to deal with them when they arise. Yet it is urgent they do so. Loneliness is a common psychological injury but when left untreated, it can have severe implications for one’s mental and physical health.

Therefore, leaders and others who experience loneliness should consider the following:

1. Monitor your health and emotional well being so that if feelings of loneliness persist for more than two weeks, you can take further action.

2. Be mindful of your emotional state and whether it is having an impact on your performance, decision-making, or how you communicate with direct reports.

3. Reach out to other top leaders in your network (preferably those in a different ‘space’ or a different branch of industry) and develop personal friendships. Having a ‘peer’ who wrestles with similar stresses and feelings can afford you support and help you feel less alone.

4. Integrate ways of managing stress into your life, especially when the demands of your role become greater such as at critical junctures or times of transition—those can exacerbate feelings of loneliness.

5. If you have concerns about confidentiality or reputation and do not feel comfortable seeking out friendships with peers, consider seeing a reputable mental health professional to discuss your feelings and to gain support and guidance.

Yes, it is lonely at the top but there are things leaders can do to mitigate the feelings of loneliness that are so common to their positions. Of course, loneliness is but one of the many psychological injuries we sustain in daily life. Applying emotional first aid to common emotional wounds when we sustain them will help maintain mental health and increase emotional resilience for top leaders and entry-level employees alike.

Image credit: elwynn / 123RF Stock Photo

Guy Winch

Guy Winch Ph.D. is a psychologist, keynote speaker, and author. His new book is Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013). He also writes The Squeaky Wheel Blog for Psychology Today.com. His private practice is in Manhattan.

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  • Dr. Janice Presser

    If, as a leader or founder, you forgo the idea that your friends must be your business level peers, you may be much happier. One of the wisest people I’ve ever known advised that to be happy you should have at least one friend in each category: richer, poorer, older, younger, more attractive, less attractive, more powerful, less powerful. The idea was that you would always have someone to bring you back to reality. In the course of nurturing those relationships, your own humanity will likely expand. And there’s nothing like a little humanity to drive home the point that we are all in this (life) together!

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Janice, I’m going to start using that!!! What a helpful, easy to remember rule of thumb. I think the biggest failure we leaders make is isolating ourselves, which often happens when we’re overly impressed by our own “station.” It can also come when our hours are so long that we’re only ever at work. There’s nothing rare about that, unhealthy as it is.

      • Dr. Janice Presser

        Such is the value of the social world then, no? We can connect without knowing the full story about someone. And, on the web, everyone is a star. Different constellation maybe, different heat level, planetary or not. But still a star, each in their own right. Some relationships can be born and be nurtured via social while others require IRL. Funny that we use the same word, digital, to mean this stream of 0s and 1s that connects us online, and in the sense of the finger, with which we physically touch IRL.

        I think it also helps to remember that leadership is a team sport. (You can use that one too, Ted, but it’s already the name of one of my blogs…)

        • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

          “Leadership is a team sport” – I love it! I agree. As another Switch and Shifter likes to say, “You matter.” …That is, all of us. The social web is the greatest force for egalitarianism there has ever been. I’m psyched to say, the concept of organizations even having a “top” in which leaders feel lonely is going the way of the dinosaur.

          BTW, when will you bless us with another of your insightful posts? It’s been too long!

          • Dr. Janice Presser

            One’s in the oven now, getting nice and crispy for your reading enjoyment!

  • Adam L Stanley

    I think the solutions here are a bit one sided and like the fact that Dr Presser has highlighted great added options. Finding balance in life is critical to avoiding or managing loneliness at the top. When i find myself in such a state, having pizza with my 8 year old niece, listening to a story from my mom, or having a beer with a mate that knows me best can be fantastic ways to get myself out of the doldrums.

    • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

      Adam, that’s a great suggestion – mix it up with friends or family from outside of work, especially a little kid! The stuff you learn from a kid will put both your worries and your hubris into perspective. If you’re without friends, family, or access to children – as can happen if we find ourselves leading a company in a new city, for instance – volunteering, even for two hours once a week, can really give you a human connection AND a sense of giving, which offers its own emotional pick-me-up. Shed your successful executive persona for that time, and don’t tell anyone what you do for a living. Just ladle out soup, or hammer with the Habitat for Humanity crew.

    • Dr. Janice Presser

      Lucky you, Adam! I’d highly recommend pizza with an 8 year old. They are our window into the future and most haven’t yet learned to censor their words and thoughts.

  • http://www.savvycapitalist.blogspot.com TedCoine

    Guy, This is a great piece – I’ve been waiting for it to come up in the lineup so we can share it with the community and spark some insightful conversation.

    Loneliness is certainly something that can happen to any of us, in any situation career-wise. It’s a huge cause of depression after divorce or the death of a spouse, for instance, if that spouse happened to be our best friend or our social team leader, as is often the case.

    For leaders in particular, though… I live in Naples, Florida, which is often compared to Beverly Hills: they have movie moguls, we have CEOs – the latter of which is also a population I advise for my career. They come in all stripes, of course. I find those most prone to the loneliness that comes from being at the top are those whose business adheres to the traditional, Industrial Age hierarchy. The old-fashioned, 20th Century leader was not “supposed to” mingle with the troops. If he was self-aware at all, he also knew that his direct reports, who he spent the majority of his time with, served at his pleasure: it’s hard to form deep friendships when you put yourself in the role of “superior” and surround yourself only with your “inferiors.”

    I see much less of this loneliness in the leaders of flatter organizations. CEOs who spend just as much time as they can mingling with everyone in the company, like Bill Hewlett and David Packard did, or like friend of Switch and Shift Peter Aceto (ING Direct Canada) does, to name three among many – those leaders seem much less inclined toward the loneliness that comes with the self-imposed emotional isolation of an old-school corporate ruler.

    And there is one more type of CEO who may fall victim to loneliness: she who is brought in from the outside, and walks into a very political, jealous culture. The other top leaders in the company may resent and try to undermine this leader, all the while smiling to her face. One solution is to fire every direct report, and all of their direct reports, and start again. Short of such a bloodthirsty move… this is a tough one, a natural breeder of the loneliness you describe.

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  • Guy Winch

    Hi Ted,
    I’ve been overseas so sorry for the late response. I wanted to add one other ‘type’ of CEO this impacts significantly, and that is CEOs of virtual companies. Many of today’s leaders spend their days in virtual offices and rarely communicate face to face. I’ve spoken to a few such leaders and their sense of isolation was palpable.
    And I too love Janice’s richer, poorer, etc… roster of friendships–great advice!

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