How Leaders Can Be Lonely At The Top

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When people think of CEOs, the general perception is that they have it made.

But what happens when the reality is different then the perception?

The concerns of those who have made it to the top are easy to dismiss. But many CEOs are plagued by feelings of isolation once they take on the top job.

Half report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and 61 percent of those who experience loneliness believe it hinders their performance.

Those just moving into the top ranks are particularly susceptible—nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.

These feelings are not limited to CEOs. Isolation and loneliness can occur in anyone with newfound authority. Leaders owe it to themselves — and to their organizations — to make sure this isolation does not interfere with their effectiveness.

Those who feel isolated can come across as aloof and distant, leading to a reputation as a leader who is uninterested and cold—which, in turn, makes it harder to lead.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are things you can do to counter any feelings of isolation and loneliness that result from your level of responsibility:

Loneliness is a human condition, as leaders we must learn to cultivate it.

Face Reality: Simply acknowledging your feelings of loneliness or isolation can be a relief in itself. Constantly denying these emotions in exchange for a (false) sense of self-assurance is exhausting. Take a moment each day to process and accept how complex, and even frightening, your responsibilities can be. Accepting your reality and feelings is the first step in dealing with them.

Open Yourself To Trust. It takes a lot of trust to break the cycle of isolation and become more open, especially when you are the leader. 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.

Find A Support Group: Cultivate a group of trusted advisors from among your peers and create a support group that will help you and others in the same position. Other sources of support may include a great coach, friends, people in other industries. Make a list of those you can reach out to.

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.

Feel Your Feelings: Your heart expresses the language of feelings, our feelings allow our senses to summarize what our mind interprets, arranges, and directs us to feel.

Our heart has its feelings, not to feel is not to be alive.

Isolation causes the loneliness, and it takes trust, bravery, and vulnerability to overcome.

CEOs and other top 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.

Leaders simply cannot afford to ignore doubts and anxieties that put their organization’s success at risk—not to mention their own happiness.

Now is the time for leaders to acknowledge these feelings and work to triumph over them.

Our reality cannot be comprehended without taking into account our feelings.

Lead From Within: Wherever you are, stay connected to what you’re feeling and hold yourself open to finding ways to work through it.

 


 

N A T I O N A L   B E S T S E L L E R
The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness

After decades of coaching powerful executives around the world, Lolly Daskal has observed that leaders rise to their positions relying on a specific set of values and traits. But in time, every executive reaches a point when their performance suffers and failure persists. Very few understand why or how to prevent it.

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Additional Reading you might enjoy:

 

Photo Credit: Getty Images


Lolly Daskal is one of the most sought-after executive leadership coaches in the world. Her extensive cross-cultural expertise spans 14 countries, six languages and hundreds of companies. As founder and CEO of Lead From Within, her proprietary leadership program is engineered to be a catalyst for leaders who want to enhance performance and make a meaningful difference in their companies, their lives, and the world.

Of Lolly’s many awards and accolades, Lolly was designated a Top-50 Leadership and Management Expert by Inc. magazine. Huffington Post honored Lolly with the title of The Most Inspiring Woman in the World. Her writing has appeared in HBR, Inc.com, Fast Company (Ask The Expert), Huffington Post, and Psychology Today, and others. Her newest book, The Leadership Gap: What Gets Between You and Your Greatness has become a national bestseller.

41 Responses to “How Leaders Can Be Lonely At The Top”

  1. Martina

    01. Oct, 2013

    Excellent points, Lolly.

    We delude ourselves when we choose to believe that we can skirt around the truth of what we feel with more activity, or that others cannot see through our masks.

    We cannot fully comprehend, face or work though our realities without honest dialog with others and with ourselves

    We can only work to heal what we are willing to face.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      01. Oct, 2013

      Martina,

      As always you bring the much needed insight to many of my thoughts.

      You are so right when you say;

      We can only work to heal what we are willing to face.

      To look oneself honestly in the mirror is difficult, but once we do, we must then face the music and do what we can to create our inner harmony.

      I so appreciate your thoughts Martina, thanks for stopping by. I have missed you.

      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  2. Karin Hurt

    01. Oct, 2013

    Such an important post. It’s easy for leaders to feel like they have to “be perfect” and show up strong, which can create even deeper feelings of isolation. Masking feelings… Your suggestions here are useful and practical. For me the trusted advisors are vital, as well as investing deeply in my family.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      01. Oct, 2013

      Being Perfect is a facade. It is not real.

      No one is perfect. It is our imperfections that make us real.

      As leaders we must remain open and real.

      Thanks for stopping by Karin I value your thoughts.
      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  3. amy oscar

    01. Oct, 2013

    Lolly – This is beautiful. Thank you.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Alli Polin

    01. Oct, 2013

    I can remember when a friend finally confided in me that they got promoted to the job that they really wanted – SVP of a big division yet they had less happiness than ever. They were “the leader” and no longer felt like they were “one of the crowd” What they were really talking about was the isolation. This is an important post for so many. Talking about it is the first step to change.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      01. Oct, 2013

      You bring up an important point Alli,
      Not being one of the crowd is the essence of the isolation feeling.
      The lonely feeling on top. Because now they think they have to BE THE LEADER
      opposed to BEING THE LEADER there is a big difference.

      Having an open heart, mind and will always gets us through all our bumps in the road of our leading.

      Thanks for sharing Alli I appreciate you so much.
      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  5. Daniel Buhr

    01. Oct, 2013

    Because of the false notion that management is leadership we wrongly place full responsibility for leadership on those who are in management. And the myth places the grandest leader crown on the head of the one who is at the “top.” But the sad, ironic reality is that those who are managers are in the position where it is most difficult to lead. Leadership requires relationship, trust, personal involvement, influence. But managers are expected to be above it all, to be objective, to show strength, use their authority for the good of the organization, don’t get personal ’cause this is business after all.
    The responsibility for leadership actually falls on each and all within an organization. And those who are outside of management need to be open to leading those inside management, to respect the manager’s authority but first & foremost value them for the person they are. Treat managers as humans, vulnerable and splendid, and help them find the courage and strength they need to lead within their role as manager.
    How to do that? Well, you’ve answered that well in this post, Lolly. Thank you.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      01. Oct, 2013

      Daniel!!!!!!

      You make some real fantastic and great points.

      We must treat managers and top leaders and employees as humans. EVERYONE as humans.

      it is in our humanity that we will find solace.

      GREAT to see you here! Appreciate your thoughts and insights.

      SEE YOU TONIGHT #leadfromwithin.

      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      01. Oct, 2013

      Remember: the time you feel lonely is the time you most need to look within. it is the irony of life

      Reply to this comment
  6. LaRae Quy

    01. Oct, 2013

    Great post, Lolly. I tend to act more aloof when I’m feeling isolated…it’s a little like “you can’t hurt me if you can’t reach me” approach.

    I agree that opening up to others by building trust is one of the constructive things we can do to ease the tension of loneliness.

    Have a great week.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      01. Oct, 2013

      The aloofness might come across as distant. And all that aloofness is really doing is cloaking yourself in a blanket of please dont hurt me.

      As leaders we must always be mindful of another person actions because not everything is surface. there is more than meets the eye.
      And LaRae if anyone understands that it is YOU.

      It is a great honor that you stopped by HOPE I SEE YOU TONIGHT on #leadfromwithin

      Reply to this comment
  7. Sherma Felix

    01. Oct, 2013

    This is so good! Daniel Buhr hit the nail on the head as well. Part of the loneliness at the top is because building trust takes time and requires patience. Also, women leaders especially, when they get lonely at the top they tend to draw within themselves. They then come across as having an attitude and are often misunderstood because of it. Our male counterparts, however, draw within themselves and they’re “the boss, that’s how they act..” Amazing. Great article!

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      03. Oct, 2013

      Sherma, you are right Daniel did express the importance of trust and patience.

      And you expressed another important point. The difference between Male and female.

      What we are learning from this is that isolation and loneliness has a way of playing out
      in our lives and leadership and either way we must learn how to deal with it…before it becomes a hindrance.

      Thanks so much for your insight and wisdom.
      Hope to see you again.

      lolly

      Reply to this comment
  8. Chantal Bechervaise

    01. Oct, 2013

    Great post Lolly! It is such an important reminder to acknowledge your feelings. Growing up we are often taught to bottle them up or dismiss them as there are seen as a sign of weakness That is wrong. We need to acknowledge our feelings in order to accept our situation, move passed it and have a more fulfilling life.

    Reply to this comment
  9. Terri Klass

    02. Oct, 2013

    Love the post, Lolly!

    I am a believer in support groups and finding other leaders who are going through similar feelings and experiences.

    Separating ourselves when we grow is detrimental to both people we encounter as well as ourselves. By connecting with others we gain nourishment and rejuvenation. Never a good idea to hold our feelings in. By sharing, we always feel stronger and learn something new.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      03. Oct, 2013

      Terri,

      I love this: By connecting with others we gain nourishment and rejuvenation.

      It is something I need to learn as a leader too.
      Thanks for your added wisdom. It really got me thinking.

      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  10. Billy Wade

    02. Oct, 2013

    It was refreshing to read your post concerning isolation. I am a Pastor and I have counseled hundreds of people. Most often there is a common thread to why they have sought counseling, all to often they have attemped to go it alone. I believe that isolation is the bedrock for depression any many other stressors. Great post

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      03. Oct, 2013

      Dearest Pastor.

      It is truth that loneliness breeds dis ease within one self.

      Depression, anxiety, stress… whatever it may be. And we pay a high price for our feelings.

      Support groups and people like you, open hearts – help those in need.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  11. Julia Winston

    02. Oct, 2013

    Lolly,

    Not only is maintaining a facade of unflappable confidence dangerous for the leader and the organization, it also instills unrealistic definitions of leadership for rising or aspiring leaders.

    Witnessing leaders berate, bully, and demean fortified in my mind as a youngster that I would NEVER be a leader. If that what leadership was, then I wanted no part of it.

    Truth is those are not the hallmarks of real leadership. It is only when leaders extend trust, be brave and show vulnerability that aspiring leaders can see what it truly means to lead.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      03. Oct, 2013

      Leadership is as individual is the person leading.

      I don’t have a cookie cutter formula of what a person should be. but I know
      if it is laced with love and caring and the essence is to connect.

      Then leadership isolation and loneliness will not such a big issue like it is today.

      Thanks for stopping by Julia, Hope to see you again real soon.
      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  12. Anoop Kumar, MD

    02. Oct, 2013

    To me, each person is a leader and manager, at least of him/herself, if not a circle of people. Taking the next step in the face of uncertainty/fear is the result of leadership and management at any level. Progressing without fallibility is delusional – it has never happened.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      03. Oct, 2013

      Anoop,

      You make some great points.

      Facing uncertainty is definitely an important aspect of living and leading.

      How we face it is just as in important as what we face.

      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  13. Chery Gegelman

    03. Oct, 2013

    Lolly,

    What a powerful reminder that no matter how successful you are – you still need to be a part of a tribe!

    As I read your post and the comments below I felt thankful that we are living in a time when vulnerability is encouraged and viewed as a sign of humanness and strength instead of weakness.

    Reply to this comment
    • lollydaskal

      03. Oct, 2013

      Chery

      you are so right we should be thankful that vulnerability is looked upon as a strength and not a weakness.

      But it should be practiced as well as spoken.

      Thanks for stopping by – it is always great to see you here.

      Lolly

      Reply to this comment
  14. Joe Scherrer

    03. Oct, 2013

    I commanded five different units when I was in the Air Force. When push came to shove, I was accountable for everything that happened in the unit. I made a lot of decisions on a daily basis and even though I delegated generously, the decisions my people made always had a reflection of “what would the commander do” in them. I was also judge and jury when it came to maintaining good order and discipline in those units.

    Although I enjoyed these assignments thoroughly, when you are in command–much like being a CEO–your peer group is extremely small. There are very few people who can relate to what you’re going through.

    Over time I learned how to build in support from people I trusted and establish ‘release valves’ for the stresses of the job.

    I also learned to be more and more authentic.

    All of these things were very important to making those demanding jobs both rewarding and enjoyable.

    Reply to this comment
  15. Bob Vanourek

    03. Oct, 2013

    Great suggestions, Lolly, as usual.

    As a former CEO (5 times) I can speak from my personal experience. The old model of leadership was that the leader is lonely at the top, distant (because he or she might have to make tough personnel decisions), in command and control, and capable of handling all things.

    We all know this is horse-pucky. Leaders are human with the same hopes and fears and occasional loneliness that we all feel.

    Yes, there were times I had to make momentous decisions for the organization, and even after all the help and wisdom of my colleagues, knew it was a lonely call to make.

    But most of the time, after the days when I got out of my ego, I felt greatly connected to colleagues and stakeholders all over the world. These relationships so helped our leadership because leadership is a group performance, not a solo act.

    Reframe the issue from “the leader” to leadership that ebbs and flows among many trusted colleagues and the loneliness diminishes.

    Reply to this comment
  16. Ajay Kumar Gupta

    03. Oct, 2013

    Dear Lolly,

    A really nice post. While I appreciate your concept and ideas of loneliness for leaders reaching at the top, I do feel that it also depends upon the character of the leader. His actions, behavior and practices in the organization in order to achieve the position plays great role in determining the degree of his loneliness. Over and above, such loneliness is more dependent upon the type of cultural practices to reach at the top. At the same time, people reaching at the top may not feel loneliness depending upon the nature of responsibility and risk involved in the position.
    There are cultures, where people get top position because of anti employee behavior. They harass employees, create fear, create difference and encourage divide and rule policy get faster promotion than those who do not follow such practices. The reason is simple- organization accept such behavior in the favor of organization. So, in such situation, reaching at the top is influenced by personal motive that may not enhance organizational growth.
    There are organizations, where people are promoted based on their real performance, talent and capabilities. Such people carry everyone along with them, and hence even after reaching at the top, they remain connected with even rank and file employees. On the other side, people concerned for their position, play all sorts of games and create great space between them and employees, and hence feel isolated.
    I do believe the role and responsibility at the top is different and it makes people to feel isolated many times.

    Reply to this comment
  17. Sai

    05. Oct, 2013

    Lolly, Nice article. A sensitive topic indeed, when you consider acknowledging it openly might be construed as weakness. Coup, any one?

    Reply to this comment
  18. John Paul

    05. Oct, 2013

    Great post, Lolly.

    There are studies out there that say many C level executives are introverts but recognize the need to connect to others in order to leade the organization in executing their goals.

    You provide valuable insights and the issue of trust resonates in a big way for me. Thank you!

    JP

    Reply to this comment
  19. Chris Smeaton

    06. Oct, 2013

    I remember when I began my career in senior administration, a retiring superintendent said it was lonely at the top. I didn’t fully understand his comments until later. A good part of the lonliness in the educational world comes from the decrease in colleagues that you can truly share your experiences. It is a lesson that I always try to provide to my new administrators. But as you said, it is critical to find other collegues or supervisors where you can share your successes and failures openly and honestly. Great message!

    Reply to this comment
  20. Linda

    14. Oct, 2013

    Being the big boss is a complicated position to be in. It is important to admit whether you are lonely and do something about it. Begin with trusting someone. Everyone needs to have a confidant to talk to and bounce important things off of. Lolly this is a great blog.

    Reply to this comment
  21. Paul Haury

    15. Mar, 2014

    Hi Lolly, Cool article. Yeah, creating the emotional and physical distance in an effort to separate yourself as a leader has the opposite of the desired effect on those that would need and look to you. It’s really simple- if they can’t touch you then you can’t them. Trust is a two-way street. Leading amongst is much more effective and fun; you get what you give.

    Reply to this comment
  22. Nathaniel McMillan

    11. Jun, 2014

    I find this to be great information that is completely true. Coaching in professional sports, I see this all the time with our GM and Head coach. People avoid people in these positions due to jealousy, intimidation, or disagreement for the most part and if you combine that with the isolation you speak of I am sure it can become difficult to find yourself socially.

    I think people who high positions shouldn’t over-think their authority and it would help if they chose to work with people instead of thinking as if they are working over them. It might help improve their interactions, presence, and help build a solid support system from those around them. In a way develop a comfort zone around their position that welcomes or invites others.

    Thanks a lot for the article.

    Reply to this comment
  23. Anthony Campbell

    08. Mar, 2015

    Lolly,

    Thank you for this article. It resonated quite strongly.

    My last significant role in the Royal Australian Navy was as the Captain of one of our frigates. Let me tell you ‘the loneliness of Command’ is very real. I had over two hundred of Australia’s finest men and women looking up to me and plenty of armchair experts ashore ready to second guess decisions I made.

    What you said above, I can fully endorse. I took a number of steps to deal with the isolation:

    – I found subordinates I coudl trust with my thoughts. I knew I could share my decision making process with them and they would contribute respectfully and carry through with any decision made. They were also not afraid to tell me if I was wrong.

    – I called on other Captains in the fleet. Talking to your peers helps you realise you are not on your own.

    – I was lucky enough to have a coach. The ability to talk to someone impartial was invaluable.

    At the end of the day, we are never truly alone.

    Thank you Lolly.

    Anthony

    Reply to this comment
  24. Tim Webb

    23. May, 2015

    Thank you all for sharing
    Sometimes moments of crises pressurise you to retreat within yourself; this intensifies the sense of isolation. It is worth remembering that increasing your visibility at times of crises often has a positive transformational effect on the situation you face. When you increase your visibility, you become more connected to your stakeholders and your sense of isolation decreases. At times of crises the great leaders become most visible.
    Tim

    Reply to this comment
  25. Karen Wood

    22. Dec, 2017

    I so appreciate not only your insight but also your sis synced, bulleted, advice for all at the top. I am in education and can certainly relate to the challenges that face leaders.

    I often find that new leaders feel the need to live up to someone’s vision of leadership and then they sometimes fall short due to that unrealistic expectation. Your post is a wonderful reminder of a step-by-step process that can help anyone who’s at the top.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    Karen Wood

    Reply to this comment

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