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Lonely at the Top? Here are 9 Ways to Deal

Management  |  
12 min read   |  
Last Updated on
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Leadership comes with a lot of power. However, the nature of power and its psychological effects frequently leave the debilitating feeling of being isolated from others. It's a feeling so common among successful people that it's become an idiom: "It's lonely at the top."

In a wide-ranging interview in 2016, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke candidly about the challenges of running one of the world's most iconic companies. "It's sort of a lonely job," he admitted.

Also, in that same interview, Cook hints that the phrase is more of a saying than a fact supported by hard evidence. He also implies that the real issue that CEOs and top leaders face is not loneliness, but isolation.

But let's face it, being a leader isn't easy. It's often described as exhilarating, rewarding, difficult, stressful, and challenging. Lonely and isolated isn't usually on that list, but it might as well be on the top.

Harvard Business Review's first CEO Snapshot Survey found that "feelings of isolation plague many CEOs once they take on the top job."

CEO loneliness and isolation can chip away the confidence and self-efficacy. It can bring on anxiety, depression, degrade your judgment and performance, leading to leadership burnout.

Being alone never felt right. Sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right. - Charles Bukowski

What Does it Mean by the Term "Lonely at the Top"?

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All great and precious things are lonely. - John Steinbeck

The phrase "lonely at the top" refers to the sense of isolation and exclusion that highly successful people in a particular field eventually faces.

Pioneering loneliness researcher John Cacioppo described Loneliness as a "perception that one is socially on edge." The important thing to remember here is that success is frequently associated with wealth, power, and brilliance. Some people will try to dig up dirt on you like hyenas preying on a lone lion. Thus "the top" is frequently seen as a place of fear, insecurity, dominance, and backstabbing.

Workplace loneliness for a top-level executive throws in an additional complication. For a successful person, it's not easy to socialize with others.

Mostly because either leaders get too overwhelmed to connect with others or others begin to treat leaders as though they are on a pedestal. This cycle is a painful dynamic that isolates those who excel in various areas.

Why is it Lonely at the top?

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It is strange to be known universally and yet to be so lonely. - Albert Einstein

Almost every leader, at some point in their career, has made a similar observation to Einstein. The higher you climb on a corporate ladder, the more sparse the trusted relationships.

Sometimes loneliness is the result of responsibility weighing on your shoulders. Sometimes, it's the result of bad decisions you made along the way with people around you. If you hope to be a successful entrepreneur, consider the idea that success often comes with a dollop of seclusion.

As Janet Fitch wrote, "Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness.”

Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception.

If you expect to find people who understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you'll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way."

Here are the top nine reasons why you might feel lonely at the top-

1) Admiration Often can Lead to Isolation

As a leader, you are often considered the hero and it is assumed that you will rarely make an error.This usually results in the impression that you have a wonderful life that is free of problems and full of convenience.

But it's not always the case. Keeping the ego at bay and understanding yourself and your priorities is a great way to alleviate feelings of isolation.

An Increase in Business Growth will Lead to a Rise in Problems
We often feel that great financial success is the end of all issues. But the fact is, as your business grows, so do your problems.

A modicum of success introduces a new chapter in your organizational history. The bigger the company, the more is at stake, and decisions get harder and more complex than ever. All eyes will be on you as you have to take large-scale initiatives.

2) The Bigger the Business More the Opinions

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Opinions are like noses: Everyone has one. More people get to know about your personal brand when your business becomes successful. As a result, many will have their own opinion about it. You might hear unfair criticism about yourself, your company, or even your purpose.

You can't expect everyone to understand or appreciate your cause, no matter how noble. Hence, in the end, it's you who have to understand your final goal and work towards it irrespective of what people around you might make you feel.

3) Every Crisis Comes Calling on You

You are always tested directly or in person during a crisis as a CEO. Such crisis situations can wear down and isolate even the strongest executive.

At such low points, you may be tempted to fake it, resort to quick-and-dirty hacks, or ignore reality. These tactics may momentarily ease loneliness, but they ultimately sabotage success.

4) You Alone Decide and Take the Final Call

Though decisions in an organization have inputs from teams, advisors, board members, customers, and others, ultimately, the last call is taken up by the CEO. Your team might support you, but it's your name on the decision.

Such responsibilities can sometimes feel lonely as you alone have to decide, especially when you know that the consequence of your decisions will be painful to someone like, for instance, layoff decisions. You may have to keep personal sentiments to yourself, showing no cracks in your armor.

5) Change in Relationship Dynamics

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Dynamic changes in relationships are often felt mostly by new CEOs. Family and close friends may suddenly stand back, unsure how to deal with your elevated role. Former colleagues and coworkers may no longer know how to relate to you.

As the boss, you are no longer "one of them." Also, though you can be friendly with your employees, you cannot be their friend. These dynamic relationship changes can create favoritism, stir up dysfunctional politics, and likely undermine your leadership and trust in others.

6) Imposter Syndrome

It's surprisingly common for CEOs to feel unprepared, untrained, and even 'unworthy' of their position. Having held senior executive positions doesn't prepare you for the reality of the top job, and it doesn't prepare you for the sudden realization that you're not 'part of the team' anymore.

Thus, acting as the figurehead to whom everyone looks for answers can leave CEOs feeling isolated and alone.

The antidote is for CEOs to be realistic and accept that they're not omnipotent. Like everyone else, they have areas of strength and weakness and won't have all the answers, so it's important to recognize your limitations.

7) Feelings of Isolation

Imposter syndrome can compound other feelings of isolation for CEOs. These insecurities can also lead to a breakdown in understanding and communication with the senior management team.

The most critical thing here is to be honest about these feelings, even if those feelings have come as something of a shock. Trying to tough it out isn't a viable long-term strategy.

The fact is that as a CEO, you won't be successful unless you can share your burdens. Every CEO needs an effective support system, and it should be a key priority to put this in place.

8) Keeping Secrets

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As a leader, you have to be wary about sharing commercially sensitive information. So, the inability to discuss things can often lead to loneliness. One way to mitigate these feelings is to put the right external advisors in place.

A Stamford University study found that two-thirds of CEOs don't receive external coaching or leadership advice. Still, they all said they were open to making changes based on constructive feedback. So having an independent external sounding board – someone who can offer counsel, guidance, and a listening ear – is critical for a CEO.

Another easy way is to join peer CEO communities that share the same boat. It can be difficult to share your problems in the same organization; however, the limitations won't conflict if other CEOs belong to a non-competitive industry.

9 Ways to Deal with Loneliness at the Top

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They say it's lonely at the top and whatever you do you always have to watch those around you, nobody is invincible, no plan is bulletproof, we always need to meet our Moment of truth. - Guero

There can be other reasons why a CEO or any top-level executive might feel lonely. However, it need not be so lonely at the top.

As theologian Paul Tillich wrote, "Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone [whereas] solitude expresses the glory of being alone."

Here are nine ways leader loneliness can be countered-

1) Cultivate Connections

The sovereign cure for loneliness is making necessary connections. It would help if you had a range of go-to groups and individuals with whom you can talk. Leadership teams can help you to be more effective as a leader by leveraging your mutual connections. Thus, loneliness can become a shared experience for such groups to bond over.

CEO peer groups can also cultivate important relationships and friendships that will benefit your company and help self-development. Some peer groups are profession- or industry-specific, while others are more diverse and include various leaders across different industries.

Also, opting for a personal advisory board of mentors, coaches and confidantes can help you feel less lonely. These are the people who have been in your shoes and care about your success. The right mentors understand your strengths and weaknesses. They will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.

2) Find your Community

Finding the right community or group to join can make you feel less lonely. You will be able to see and connect with other executives who are fighting the same battles you are.

That's one of the big benefits of joining a leadership communication platform where you will discuss and understand various aspects of your business and the roadblocks you face.

3) Executive Coaching and Peer Learning

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Executive coaching can greatly help leaders push themselves towards growth while giving them the gift of mentorship. Executive coaches listen to problems and provide real feedback, something many executives can't get at work.

Also, peer learning through various leadership platforms can equally help leaders discuss issues and solutions about multiple roadblocks with various global leaders across industries. These platforms can help ensure better strategic and practical decisions.

4) Humility and Gratitude

Most leaders often confuse humility with a lack of confidence. They tend to feel that they should have all the answers.In truth, the best leaders have a realistic appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses.

They are secure in knowing that they don't know everything. They have no problem asking for help, learning from others, and apologizing for their mistakes. This degree of confidence and open-mindedness draws people in, creating a culture of inclusivity and collaboration.

Also, fostering a value-based work culture is extremely important as it makes connecting with teams and other stakeholders easier. As a leader, you should celebrate your employees' successes.

Employee reward and recognition platforms, such as those offered by Vantage Circle, are an integral addition to any business. Offering appreciation that is frequent and on-spot will help you and your employees build strong relationships.

5) Cultivate a Bias for Action

Cultivating a bias for action is a powerful antidote to isolation. Actions to seek information actively can get you out of a rut.

Look to your advisors and mentors for help, and make an interim plan before executing any solution, even if you know it is not definitive. A good plan implemented quickly is always better than the best plan implemented too late or never.

Talking and discussing with advisors and mentors can make you feel less lonely while making decisions. It can also help leaders to feel less isolated as such a team of advisors will always know about all your weaknesses and strengths before suggesting. Therefore, as a leader you will have a trustworthy team to rely on during roadblocks.

6) Work-Life Balance

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It is sometimes difficult to manage to spend time between family, work, and yourself, making you feel stressed and lonely. As a leader, you need to find the balance every day which will make your life less stressful and counter the feeling of loneliness.

Work-life balance is not about managing your resources but about managing your time. Begin by scheduling everything; take at least five minutes to breathe deeply and get some fresh air. Redefining how you spend your time daily can be more rewarding and rejuvenating than you think.

7) Cultivate Pragmatic Optimism

Optimism is often confused with false hope.But when optimism is grounded in reality, it is a powerful leadership asset. Optimists believe in the feasibility of creating a future state that is better than the present state.

Optimism, therefore, is forward-looking, future-oriented, and inherently strategic. On the other hand, pessimism compels you to think about what you cannot do rather than what is possible.

8) Mindset Training

People with a fixed mindset believe that their skills are capped out. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that they can always learn more. When executives shift their mindset from fixed to growth, the world opens up new possibilities.

A growth mindset gives executives permission to learn from everywhere and everyone. Thus, mindset training is extremely important as a leader, which requires effort, time, and support. And that support, which an executive will give and receive, makes the world a less lonely place.

9) A Common Vision

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When your team understands and shares the same vision as you, work will feel less lonely. Also, a shared vision is what will bring employees closer to executives, according to a survey cited in Harvard Business Review.

The survey found that 72 percent of employees and 88 percent of senior roles want a forward-looking leader. With a more willing group of employees and executives, the top definitely will feel less lonely.

Wind-up

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Whatever the size or type of organization, the reasons to feel lonely at the top tend to be similar. When running a business, every decision made demands you as a leader to finalize it before it's implemented. Therefore, as a CEO, you are constantly scrutinized and emotionally isolated, which traps you in a state of loneliness.

As a leader, it also implies that you can't just go out with your colleagues and expect them to tell you what they think. Equally, as a leader, you're always cautious about sharing your innermost concerns with colleagues or even your board chairman.

Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. - Arthur C. Clarke

It isn't always easy to be trapped in the 'CEO bubble.' But it's a dangerous place because the CEO is a weathervane for the entire organization. Everyone is affected by the boss's well-being, and it touches an emotional nerve that everyone identifies with.

These effects can be compounded because many CEOs are apprehensive about showing any signs of weakness. Some feel they don't need advice from anyone or view asking for external help to admit failure.

However, every company has a senior leader, such as the CEO. While there may be limitations on the support they can get within their organization, there is no such conflict when sharing with other CEOs in non-competitive industries.

The great benefit of 'peer learning' is that the CEOs who participate are all in the same boat. These relationships and friendships can be an important source of support for any senior business leader.

This article is written by Tanya Ahmed, a Digital Marketer of Vantage Circle, a cloud-based employee engagement platform. She is a leadership enthusiast with a post-graduate MBA in Leadership from Queen Mary University of London. Her experiences range from various fields, including Customer relationships, Content Creating, Sales & Marketing. For any related queries, contact editor@vantagecircle.com.

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