Loneliness in Leadership

Lonely Leadership - 1In February of 2012, Harvard Business Review featured a story acknowledging that it is lonely being the CEO. The article noted that it’s isolating at the top.  Now, if you are at all like me it is a little hard to feel sorry for CEOs on a regular basis.  What with their power, prestige, influence, and wealth — the common man’s perception is that they have it all. They must be the happiest people on the planet.

All those trappings of success notwithstanding, business leaders face some genuine troubles, not least of which is loneliness.

The author of that article cited survey findings from the CEO Snapshot Survey that “half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role.  And 61 percent believe that it hinders their performance. This was particularly acute with first-time CEOs and young leaders.

Lonely Leadership - 2Maybe you are also like me in that you don’t really care if billionaires like Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos aren’t reaching the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy!

So why am I writing about this?

I would suggest that any leader’s isolation and feelings of loneliness have negative implications on their personal performance, and perhaps more importantly, on how they interact with others. Because it is not just big corporate CEOs who experience this kind of loneliness.   It is team leaders, entrepreneurs, pastors, and community leaders also. And this impacts the bottom-line for organizations.

This loneliness springs from a feeling that they have no one “at their level” to talk to.  They have no “peers” in their view.  They have no one to confide in.  They have no one to bounce ideas off of and no one to turn to for advice.  They also have no one holding them accountable for their actions and deeds.  This isn’t good for decision-making, culture, performance, or the long-term health of the organization.

So, what are we to do?

Lonely Leadership - 3The most successful and the most well-balanced leaders have confidantes who can “give it to them straight”.  These individual are empowered and willing to speak truth to powerful and to keep them in the know about what folks down the line are thinking and feeling.

Because of the leader’s position and influence, their actions are magnified and they ripple throughout the organization.  And leadership loneliness and isolation becomes a larger problem when it leads to poor decision-making, negativity, fatigue and frustration.

If you’re in a leadership role, you can guard against being isolated by making connections to one or more accountability peers a priority in your calendar of events. Make time in your schedule to spend with, or develop a relationship with, someone that you can let “inside”.  Here are a few practical things that you can do to address this need in your leadership development:

  • Find a peer group – With online services such as LinkedIn and others, there is no excuse for not finding others in your industry and in your position that are peers.  They may not be exact peers.  But that is OK.  If you are a little farther along in your leadership role then be a mini-mentor to that peer.  If they are farther along than you, then try to benefit from the time spent with them.
  • Find a personal board of advisors – CEOs of public corporations have a board of advisors. You should have a “personal board of advisors” as well.  The point here is to have a few people you can go to regularly to bounce around ideas, discuss fears and challenges, and gain perspective.
  • Find a coach or a mentor – Of course, as a coach, I have a strong bias for the value of working with a leadership coach. And some may see this article as shameless self-promotion.  If you do, that is your right and your privilege.  One of the key benefits of working with a coach is that he or she can discuss issues objectively since they have no vested interest in the client’s decision — unlike nearly everyone else in their organization whose livelihood may depend on the quality of those decisions and the success or failure of their implementation. A good coach helps you see blind spots.  And the best coaches use some sort of feedback or survey mechanism to help the client “hear the voice” of those around them and under them.

Lonely Leadership - 4I believe in the words that I have written above.  I live them out on a daily basis.  This morning, before the sun came up, I was on the phone with a young entrepreneur encouraging him along the lines above.  Tomorrow afternoon I will meet with a mentor to me who is guiding me and helping me to make Leadership Voices an organization that develops leaders in all walks of life and who reaches many with a message of encouragement.

And if you will allow a few more moments for shameless self-promotion, I would like to point to a few resources that are at your disposal that will not cost you financially at all.  Rene Rivera has created a tool and a method to create and build accountability into our lives.  He has created GM6 which is short for fighter pilot lingo – “Got my six!”  His resources are available on our Resource page.  He would love to speak to you and to your group about the important factor that accountability plays in our personal lives.  I have created a “Challenge to Lead” series and workshop that challenges us to be a leader in 8 vital areas of our lives.

We can also put you in touch with coaches and mentors in a variety of areas that leadership Voices has vetted and is comfortable recommending.  These are other professional coaches who offer their services on a fee basis.  Rodney Mills and Centrifuge Leadership is one coach in whom I have confidence.  And he has some resources that are available at no cost as well.

I challenge you today to acknowledge that leadership can be lonely.  And I further challenge you to do something about it. Reach out to us if you are brave enough and we will work with you to become the leaders that you want to be.

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Photo credit: Koen Cobbaert / Foter / (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Photo credit: Peter Heilmann / Foter / (CC BY 2.0)

3 Replies to “Loneliness in Leadership”

  1. Great article Kevin, I wonder if some of those leaders are lonely because they have separated themselves from their team. I would think the best leaders have “open door” policies and make it a point to make sure their team feels like they are able to confide in them. I think this builds trust, and a firm team foundation.

  2. Billy, I have been fortunate to see the set of offices that really exemplified and started the Open Door management philosophy. I toured them on one of my trips to HP headquarters in California years ago.

    Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett were well known for introducing two management processes, “The HP Way” and “Management by Objective”. But they also promulgated another process that was even more important in some ways, it was called the Open Door Policy. This simply stated that when there was an important matter that your own management wouldn’t listen to or accept, you had a right to walk into any higher-level manager in the company to make your case — Even Bill and Dave’s offices. The door was open. Bill had a “feel” for what was right for common-sense management principles, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the source of this idea.

    It is also interesting to note that the doors to the short passageway between Bill and Dave’s offices were always open to one another.

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