Are You Lonely in the Leadership Role? Study Says You’re In Good Company.
This month, Harvard Business Review featured a story about how lonely it is to be the CEO. The article echoed what anyone who’s been a leader or run a company knows well — it’s isolating at the top. Especially for new leaders, the issue can be surprisingly unsettling.
The authors cited survey findings that “half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61 percent believe it hinders their performance. First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation. Nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.”
Your first reaction may be: cry me a river.
Corporate CEO behavior and lavish salaries haven’t exactly instilled empathy. Should we care if billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos aren’t reaching the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?
I would argue, any leader’s isolation has negative ramifications on others. And it’s not just CEOs who experience this kind of loneliness — it’s team managers, entrepreneurs, and community leaders too. In fact, anyone who finds themselves peerless can feel isolated. This isn’t good for decision-making, culture, or performance.
The best leaders have confidantes who can give it to them straight, speak truth to power, and keep them in the know. Stanford management professor Robert Sutton warned against the “toxic tandem” of leadership, where those in charge become more self-absorbed and less attuned to others’ perspectives precisely when they need outside information the most.
Many times those in leadership positions don’t feel they have a right to experience loneliness. After all, they worked hard to land their coveted position. But it’s a near universal human response to experience times of isolation in a leadership role. As I discussed in The Power of Presence, relatedness is extremely important to our well-being and effectiveness. Neuroscientist researcher David Rock has shown that it’s “hardwired” with biochemical roots.
Because the leader’s actions reverberate, one person’s isolation becomes a larger problem when it leads to poor decision-making, negativity, fatigue and frustration. And who wants to work for an unhappy person?
If you’re in a leadership role, you can guard against being isolated by making connection a priority. Don’t feel bad about it; view it as a necessity.
1. Find a peer group. When I was a first-time CEO, I really struggled to find equilibrium. Eventually I joined Vistage International, which is a CEO professional development organization with chapters around the country. Every month, I was able to discuss confidential issues with 15 other leaders battling similar circumstances. It had a significant impact on my business and my well-being.
For new entrepreneurs, I’m a fan of The Founder Institute, of which I’m a mentor. Members build camaraderie with fellow start-up entrepreneurs, and learn valuable skills to launch a business. Many times, business owners don’t even know fellow entrepreneurs before they join. Having that kind of network helps you learn from each other’s progress and roadblocks.
2. Form a personal board of advisors. CEOs routinely put together a board of advisors, which is helpful from a business standpoint. However, you may still need to be “on” with that group. Instead, look for those with whom you can speak openly and form your own informal advisory group. These can be peers in different divisions, or similar companies, or even retired industry professionals. You may even be able to tap into the advice of a trusted colleague who reports to you. The point is to have 4-5 people you can go to regularly to bounce around ideas, discuss fears and challenges, and gain perspective.
3. Get a coach or a mentor. Of course, as a coach, I have a strong bias for the value of working with a leadership coach. In defense of this point, I worked with a coach for years before I became one. One of the reasons a coach is helpful is because he or she can discuss issues with no vested interest in the client’s decision — unlike nearly everyone else in their life. A good coach helps you see blind spots and get underneath issues, not just attack them at the surface.
That said, a coach isn’t for everyone. Often, you can find a mentor who serves the same function in an unpaid relationship. Finding a leader with past experience relevant to yours, who is motivated to be your mentor, can be a big advantage. That person knows how hard it is to be in your shoes because they were there once. Perhaps it’s why they’ll jump in to help you now.
Do you ever experience loneliness in your leadership role? What do you do about it? Comment here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. This post also appears on Forbes.com.
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