It’s lonely as a leader at the top, and I have proof.
I could start by wowing you with data. As a former CFO, I appreciate good data. For instance, an article I recently read from Fast Company quotes a survey by RHR International “that found that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their roles. Of this group, 61 percent believe isolation hinders their performance.”
When I clicked a link to learn more about the survey, it took me to a 2012 article from Harvard Business Review by Thomas Saporito, RHR’s chairman and CEO. He quoted the same survey in very similar language and provided a link to the RHR site. I clicked it and got a nice note saying the “content you are looking for is no longer available.”
So I was tempted to dismiss the study. One, it’s more than four years old. Two, I couldn’t dig deep into it to test its validity. But I didn’t dismiss it, and here’s why: I know it’s true.
It can be lonely as a leader, and I know this because I’ve spent time as a CEO. And I also know that feelings of loneliness have the potential to hamper every leader’s performance. If you’re in a position of leadership – but especially if you’re a CEO – then I suspect you know this is true, too.
So what can we do about it?
I believe it starts by acknowledging the obvious: We can’t deal with loneliness alone. We need to interact with other people and look outside of ourselves, not internalize or isolate.
It’s obvious, but it’s also hard. We don’t want to show cracks in our armor. But if we aren’t willing to become vulnerable, those cracks will only grow larger.
Once we’re willing to share with others, work with others, and listen to others, we can take some practical steps to guard against and/or address the loneliness that damages our effectiveness as leaders.
Here are three things you can do that are almost sure to help.
Get a board
Put together a personal board of directors who can provide wise counsel. I recommend finding 3-5 people outside of your organization whom you trust. Ideally, they are people who have experienced the things you are experiencing or they’ve shown a unique ability to relate their experiences to your situation.
Find a coach
Professional coaching has become a booming industry, so it’s no longer just for the CEO. There are coaches for all levels of leaders. There’s an expense involved, but the investment is worth it if you find a coach who provides valid feedback and sound advice.
Know your compass
One of the reasons we isolate from others as leaders is because we’re unsure of who we are and what we believe. We lack direction. A compass helps us define the values that matter to us, so we can open up to others and lead with confidence. A coach can help you define what that compass looks like. Or you might turn to a friend, mentor, pastor, or some other leader to help.
If we’re grounded in what we believe and willing to open ourselves up to the counsel of others, we can reduce feeling lonely as a leader and leave the ivory tower so we can work with the people around us to build something truly great.