It’s Lonely At The Top — How To Battle Isolation In Leadership
It’s lonely at the top. Being a leader can be exhilarating, challenging, rewarding and fun. But there can also be a down-side. One problem of leadership is a sense of isolation.
Leaders often experience isolation at greater levels than most employees. How to cope with the loneliness of leadership?
ImportantLeadership and loneliness go hand-in-hand. It’s inevitable that you’ll be treated with a different regard than when you were a regular member of the team. Those coffee breaks and happy hour invitations are no longer being extended, and your water cooler conversations have become trivial small talk.
You work for years to climb the corporate ladder and you finally reach the top. As exciting as it is, there is a small downside: It can be a bit lonely at the top.
Sure, you’ve probably heard it before but for many of us, until we start to experience it, we don’t expect it. For many, admitting to loneliness, isolation and fear equates to weakness and they feel they can’t be weak in the top job — so they try to hide it.
Being a leader is lonely work, none more so than today. Every leader has to find their own way of doing the work of leadership.
If we’re isolated and lonely at work then our wellbeing, engagement and performance declines. Put simply, we’re not at our best.
Loneliness can negatively affect your effectiveness, lead to burnout, and do harm to both you and those around you. Every leader should have a set of skills for coping with loneliness on board.
It is lonely being a leader, and leadership is lonely work. But there are ways you can ease the loneliness and battle isolation. Here are seven simple ways you can help yourself overcome the loneliness of leadership.
Seek Out Peers
There are times when we are lonely because we cut off the communication channels with other people. Or we never even built important relationships to build a support net for ourselves.
Best way to build a strong network as a leader is being intentional about your relationships. Create allies in the people in the organization above you.
They believed in you when they promoted you, help them see you succeeding. Share positive triumphs regularly and ask for advice on challenges they might be able to help you with.
The key is to find a few people you can turn to when you need to vent, seek advice, or brainstorm in confidence.
ImportantWhen we have a support net that feels safe and where we belong, we feel happier and more able to weather challenges — and science even says people who feeling connected socially live longer, healthier lives. Lowering stress also improves our immunity and feelings of anxiety.
Engage in conversations with your contemporaries and peers by participating in executive management training programs.
You may not want to show any vulnerability to a competitor in another company, but you can be honest when talking with those leaders from other fields. As you share the same concerns, you can connect with someone who understands what happens at that level of responsibility.
Individual development plans isolate us and give us time frames that demotivate.
ImportantLeaders can take a different approach with professional development as a team sport. They can run a monthly team huddle to talk about professional development.
In addition, joining a support group will give you the safety, belonging, mattering you crave in a community of those who aren’t afraid to give you some tough love and honest feedback.
Forming connections with others also strongly alleviates stress. People with strong social ties live longer and have better mental health than those who feel isolated and lonely.
Vulnerable Is Mashable
Even if you’re the best leader in the world, at some point your staff are going to talk about you behind your back. Inevitably you will make a decision that not everyone will agree with, and even if it garnered a successful outcome, those that are in disagreement will likely start whispering.
Organizationally and socially we expect leaders to be strong people. That’s how we want them to be. That’s how we see leaders to be, but leaders are only human beings.
ImportantLeadership is achieved, fundamentally, with attitude and learning from experience. However, experience comes from making mistakes. If you never make mistakes, it’s because you are not taking risks. But sometimes, one feels very lonely when taking too many risks.
You can recognize that you’re a person of significant influence with great responsibility while still maintaining a proper perspective on how you got to this place.
You didn’t reach this level of leadership alone, and you don’t continue serving in this role alone. Humility means having a healthy sense of who you are and how you need other people to thrive in your leadership position.
To shake the image of the self-serving guy with little to lose, leaders need to be honest about their vulnerabilities.
ImportantGreat leaders recognize the importance of bringing vulnerability to work because it is the foundation for open and nonjudgmental communications. Vulnerability fuels the strongest relationships, and ultimately, helps bring even more success to your organization.
Being vulnerable isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t make you weak. It allows you to start showing your authentic self.
It actually makes you a better leader because you stop wasting energy protecting yourself from what you think other people shouldn’t see. By accepting vulnerability as a strength, you stop worrying about having every answer and realize it’s okay to be wrong.
📚 Additional reading
Being perfect is impossible, and trying to be perfect can be a massive drain on both your time and energy. We are all human beings with many great strengths and many areas that we struggle with.
Being relatable as a leader doesn’t mean being everyone’s best friend. Being relatable means being yourself; living an authentic, consistent life with the people you lead. If you want better relationships, you must be relatable.
Stay in touch with the grassroots of your organization so that you know you’re not being given a filtered and managed perception of the business reality.
This might mean holding town halls, walking the halls and chatting informally with team members, or having skip-level meetings so that you meet with more junior employees without the mid-level bosses mediating the discussion.
Being relatable comes from honest and authenticity in telling your story.
ImportantBeing willing to share the emotional things that we often hide out of pride, fear of judgment, or shame. We all know that actual human beings have ups and downs and failures along with successes.
Relatable leaders listen more than they speak. As a leader, you don’t always have to fix things.
ImportantListening attentively is a key element of letting others speak and come up with solutions. Stay curious and interested — there is always room to learn something new.
One of the biggest things people look for in good leaders is relatability.
They want to be able to connect with them on a close, trusting level. Leaders who possess empathy, who demonstrate that they understand where every member of their team is coming from, and how much they care about team member’s well-being, will always have an avid following.
📚 Additional reading
There are many ways to come across as relatable, but it boils down to a natural ability to connect to many different types of people through discussion and storytelling. It is the way in which a leader expresses their innate humanity.
Speak Your Thoughts
If you have ever been to therapy, or even shared an intimate conversation with a close friend, you know that as soon as you tell someone what has been weighing on your chest you start to feel better.
Give up on being a leader who knows the answers.
You won’t be solving as many problems alone late at night by yourself. Your questions will allow people to work on problems together and it will create a deeper sense of team for everyone to share the problem solving — including you.
Leaders need a safe place to vent. Unlike everyone else, a leader can’t openly complain.
And often, leaders don’t want to dump their work problems at home. Breaking out of your peer group doesn’t mean you are suddenly without peers. Seek out a new peer group — a network of leaders.
There are so many people that you can talk to, that you could go to at networking meetings where other leaders gather.
ImportantYou can create your own groups of leaders that come together in action planning groups or something like that. Action planning sets. Now, if you’re going to create that environment, you have to choose the right people to be within that environment.
Find friends outside your industry and workplace to spend time with. You need a safe space to vent, and it’ll be better for you to have an outside perspective.
There are ways of unburdening yourself. There are ways of sharing your thoughts, your feelings, your limiting beliefs, your challenges, your mental thought patterns that you’ve got yourself stuck into. There are ways of sharing those without anybody seeing that as a perceived weakness.
Look around your organization and think about who else is functioning at your level — it may be the people you see at the weekly meeting — that could be a good place to start.
ImportantWhen you make connections with others in your organization who are facing the same kinds of problems you are, you can leverage each other’s experience and find companionship at the same time.
📚 Additional reading
The trust to open up requires a level of vulnerability that can be difficult to allow, but it’s essential to your happiness and effectiveness. Start small if you need to, but start somewhere.
Take a Break
Fostering relationships outside of work is important for feeling that sense of belonging and wellbeing. If your role as a leader makes you feel isolated, achieving work-life balance is all the more crucial.
Make time for friends, family, loved ones, volunteering, and hobbies or interests. Take work-life balance seriously.
Leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Hiroshi Lockheimer (Google) all make an effort to be home for dinner. They say it gives them more time to spend with their families and allows them to create boundaries between work and home life.
Do you ever find yourself not entirely present in the moment? You should seize the day!
Your mind can wander anywhere, from a business meeting to the family dinner table. Sometimes, creating a necessary balance can be as simple as staying in the moment.
There are times when you feel emotionally withdrawn not because people around you don’t support you, but simply because you are mentally or emotionally exhausted.
ImportantFor your own sanity, take a break! There’s nothing wrong with taking a weekend off to watch movies, read books, ski or swim in the lake. Once refreshed, you will have a renewed perspective, more energy to tackle challenges in front of you and to make an impact only you can make.
If all you do is eat, sleep, and work, you risk losing balance, burning out and becoming an uninteresting drone with nothing to add to the conversation.
There is no end to the ways to get connected socially with others, all it takes is a little initiative on your part. And as you broaden your experiences with people outside your work environment, you will have more interesting things to say.
Executive leaders go to great lengths to maintain a facade of unflappable confidence, concealing any insecurities or anxiety. But this cycle creates dangerous problems for both the leader and the organization.
Executive coaching can help leaders to integrate the reality of isolation into who they are.
ImportantThrough coaching, you’re asked to consider who you will be in the midst of situations where you feel isolated. Deliberate options are cultivated that leave coachees feeling stronger and better equipped for all of life’s leadership challenges.
Think about people outside of your chain of command that you admire as a professional.
The perspective of someone successful who has been over the ground you are now walking can give you a big boost. They can offer you ideas, direction, and a point of view you might not be able to see from your current place on the path.
Assemble wise individuals from different industries and positions who can advise and learn from one another in an informal advisory group.
Among other advantages, you’ll have a group in which you can bounce around ideas, discuss fears and challenges, and gain perspective. One of the best ways to do this proactively is to engage in a mastermind group or mentoring relationship.
You don’t have to be lonely. There’s always somebody out there who feels, thinks and behaves just the same as you do.
ImportantIf you find the right people around you, if you find the right coach, if you find the right group around you because you’re able to offload a lot of your disempowering thoughts, your performance is probably going to increase.
Crack a Book
This may sound counter-intuitive, but it could help to pick up a book or two. You aren’t the only person to ever supervise others or to feel a sense of leader isolation from trying to do it right.
Reading is a great way to connect with shared experience and learn coping strategies and best practices.
When we read about the experiences of other leaders, it reminds us that sometimes leader isolation comes with the territory, and we can see how others have dealt with it.
Readers are likely to be leaders.
ImportantReading is one of the most efficient ways to acquire information, and leaders need a lot of general information to keep perspective and seize opportunities. Readers possess a comparative advantage in today’s business environments.
Reading helps us master communication. When we read, we pick up language proficiency that transfers across the board, including speaking and writing.
ImportantReading uniquely expands our vocabulary. This is important for leaders because an expanded vocabulary means not only greater precision in our communication, but with the improvement in emotional IQ, we’ll also be able to choose words that are more persuasive and motivate the kind of behaviors we want.
It’s easy to get bogged down in our day-to-day lives, and reading elevates us above the daily grind.
It can inspire us with stories of great accomplishments. It can give us new ideas. It allows us to step back and view the forest while day-to-day we only see a few trees.
Being a leader can be an isolating experience at times. But by remaining authentic, whilst also acknowledging and accepting a certain level of isolation that comes with the role, you can be reconciled to life’s realities in a way that brings you stability and enjoyment.
Everyone experiences loneliness at times the trick is to learn how to cope with it and move through it.
ImportantIt’s lonely at the top — but it doesn’t have to be. Let people in, confide in support groups, and take time to yourself to reconnect with those most important to you.
I know leadership is hard. Almost every leader I know earns their salary through giving deeply of themselves.
Lean in, connect with others, engage, and find the real relationships all around you—your colleagues are probably a little lonely too. You can find a path around the loneliness.
As you take on more responsibility, if you’re doing it right, there’s a chance you will feel a sense of leader isolation at times.
ImportantThat doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. It’s just a sign that it’s time to expand your circle of connections.
When you show yourself first willing to help others, they will be more likely to repay the favor, and pretty soon, you’ve made a new friend.
How have you handled loneliness? What lessons have you learned when handling loneliness? What changes can you make to feel more supported and connected? What tools will help you cope with leadership isolation? Join the conversation via the comments link below.