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Lonely at the top? You can change that.

By Jay Fehnel for Johan Advisors

It’s long been said that it’s “lonely at the top.”  Now that we’re learning more about the impact of loneliness, there are more reasons than ever for leaders to be concerned about their emotional isolation at work.

Leaders who are lonely in their roles are missing vital opportunities to learn best practices, improve their industry visibility, relieve stress, build supportive relationships and see their challenges through multiple sets of eyes.

Those are just some of the professional costs of isolation at work.  The possible impact on your health is even more troubling.

Researchers are cataloging the physical and emotional costs of loneliness to society, including: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, depression, diminished cognitive ability and Alzheimer’s disease.

The United Kingdom has even appointed a government minister to focus exclusively on reducing loneliness, to combat its impact on quality-of-life.

If you’re a leader in your company, division or department, you should be concerned about professional loneliness.  While its impact may not show up physically, the cost of being an isolated leader is nonetheless real for you and your organization.

What’s causing leaders to stay lonely at the top?  Here are some top causes:

-  Few or no internal peers: You may lack others whom you see as peers within your organization. This is especially true at the highest levels of a company.  If you limit your notion of peers to people who understand the language, personalities and specific challenges of your role, you may have few to choose from.

-  Fear of admitting weakness:  While authenticity and vulnerability can be very valuable at work (in the right cultures, with the right agreements), leaders have legitimate reasons to be hesitant discussing how they may be under-performing or failing.  Let’s face it, mean-spirited peers, professional competitors and detractors could try to use your openness against you.

- Confidentiality concerns: Leaders know a lot of confidential information and if they let any of it slip, other people will undoubtedly pass some of it on, due to a lapse in judgement, wanting to brag or wanting to hurt others.

- Lack of self-awareness:  Some leaders have become so convinced of their own superiority and so justified in their behavior that they lack much interest in what they could learn from others.

- “Shallow” connections: Twitter, LinkedIn, Quora and other social media can help you feel connected to others and your industry, creating a surface level of connection that has value. Still, they can’t replace a real conversation with someone who cares about you.

-  Fatigue: If you’re exhausted, you may not feel you have the energy or time for cultivating additional relationships.

If you’re a lonely leader, what’s keeping you there?  Start now to find good ways to feel less isolated. 

Here are some options to consider:

-  Expand your concept of ‘peers’: Get over your notion that only someone in your role, industry or company could possibly understand you or be helpful. After working with leaders across multiple industries, from non-profit education startups to international Fortune 500’s, I can assure you, your challenges are not that unique.

- Join a peer group or start your own: There’s a reason why Young Presidents Organization (YPO), Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), Vistage and countless regional business groups have been around for decadesThey give their members a chance to see their challenges from a new vantage point. If those options seem too expensive or traditional for you, start your own peer group of people you’d love to learn from. 

- Form a personal “board of directors”: Why stop at peers? Some highly motivated people even recruit their own board. This gives you a great reason to reach out to people outside your industry and with more seniority.

-  Get a coach:  One of the primary roles of executive coaches is creating an environment where you can “get real” about what you want, your values, standards, blind-spots and failures.  Your coach doesn’t need to be your clone. Many coaching clients especially enjoy talking with someone who won’t -- and can’t -- climb down in the weeds with them.

-  Recruit a mentor:  If you’d like input from someone who’s been there and done that, find someone with greater seniority and experience in areas that matter to you.

-  Work with a mental health professional: If your on-the-job loneliness is contributing to serious anger, depression or behavior issues, first talk to someone who’s trained to help get you back to firmer ground.

Whatever you do, just start.  Do something to build even one relationship where you can see the benefits of opening up, asking for help and supporting others. Do it in real conversations, in real-time. Do it with someone you’re willing to be vulnerable with.

Some sense of separateness is inherent in any leadership role. That can’t be eliminated -- but your loneliness can.


If you’d like to help other leaders reduce their loneliness, please share this article. Thanks.

(Jay Fehnel is an Executive Coach and Strategy Advisor for C-suite leaders, senior management teams and their high-potential successors. He helps executives define and achieve their professional and personal growth goals. Jay is principal and owner of Johan Advisors.)