How to Overcome the “Lonely-At-The-Top Syndrome”

Leaders face a variety of pain points, which we have written about on many occasions over the years. The most famous of the leader’s pain points is, of course, loneliness. “It’s lonely at the top.”

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While the fact that it is lonely at the top is “known” by practically everybody, there is absolutely no insight to be gained from this truism. May as well say, “It’s dusty at the back of the galloping herd.”

Why is it lonely at the top?

There are several reasons why it’s lonely at the top:

  1. Some people will resent your promotion because they wanted it.
  2. Other people will assume you have it easy, and push you away.
  3. Many people will blame you for the unavoidable pains of their own lives.
  4. You must protect your workers from some of the burdens the leader bears.
  5. You are afraid of the # 2’s and # 3’s in the organization, and you don’t want to lower your guard.
  6. You like to control your world, protect your autonomy, and push everybody back three paces.

The roots of leadership loneliness, therefore, are varied. Some of the roots are simply a product of the sinfulness and frailty of human beings. Jealousy, resentment, accusation, fear, avarice, and greed drive or pull leaders toward isolation. Some of the roots of leadership loneliness are simply part of the job description. You are responsible for things that others aren’t, and consequently you must know things they don’t need to know, and carry things that they can’t.

Why is loneliness and isolation dangerous for leaders?

Space doesn’t permit us to identify all the inventive ways leaders destroy themselves (and while they’re at it, their loved ones, organizations, and the livelihood and savings of many), all by mishandling their loneliness. Each one of us is an expert on this subject in that we know the role that our isolation plays in our failures. Isolated leaders tell themselves:

  • That they deserve privileges that they don’t actually deserve (they’ve got nobody close to them who might set them straight),
  • That they’re above the law (no one close enough to remind them that they’re human),
  • That they’re special (it’s easy to feel special when everybody says, “yes”), and,
  • That they won’t get caught (they also walk on water, and can negotiate around the law of gravity).

What is dangerous about untended leadership loneliness is the havoc an isolated leader can wreck. We actually can’t handle the pressures, temptations, and problems of leadership by ourselves. We require help.

What helps to bring a lonely and isolated leader back to life?

  1. Wise and loving friends – we can’t navigate life’s challenges without wise and loving friends.
  2. A coach or mentor – a coach or mentor has already worked with other leaders and is therefore familiar with the kinds of pressures we bear.
  3. Exercise – we must work off our stress.
  4. Spiritual exercise – we must cultivate our heart and soul. Courage and integrity and kindness and calm come from the inside of a life that is whole.
  5. The decision to not live for self – there’s no helping an isolated and lonely leader who is selfish. Deciding to live for others is much of the battle.

One of the hardest truths about leadership – and part of the reason that “it’s lonely at the top” – is that we leaders must lead ourselves. Whining that we don’t have friends, good enough friends, or any of the other resources we need, is a leadership disqualifier. Leaders take responsibility. We must lead ourselves to the people we need, reach out and ask for help, get a coach, crawl out of bed early to feed our soul, and remind ourselves that we don’t exist for ourselves.

Here are two ideas to get started if you’re lonely at the top:

  1. Go through your most recent yearbooks, looking for the people you were close to and that you trusted in school. Google, Facebook, or Linked-In them and identify any who are now leaders. Reach out. “What have you found that helps you handle the pressures?” you might ask. If they say, “what pressures?” then move on; they can’t help you. If they say, “I know what you mean; something I do is …” then consider taking a second step. “You ever want to sit down for an evening over dinner and compare notes? Friend to friend?”
  2. Do an inventory of the leaders in your region who have 20+ years on you. Think about what you observe in them, and very carefully sort them out, putting, “Graceful, wise, good, kind, thoughtful” onto a short list. Ask yourself, which one of these would I like to have a cup of coffee with. Then reach out. “I’m growing in my leadership,” is a great way to start, “and I’m reaching out to a few people I really look up to. May I have 45 minutes of your time at some point over the next few months to ask you a few questions about how you learned to manage the pressures and keep growing?” Then prepare well, treat their time respectfully, and see how it goes. If it goes well, you might ask them if they would be willing to do it again, say in another quarter year.

There is no law that says a leader can’t be well cared for. No law that says a leader can’t have true friends, or can only have one mentor. There is a law, though, that says that a leader must take the initiative to search for these things, to discern good from bad, and to find the friends, mentors and coaches that we need.

It doesn’t seem fair that leaders must do this? In truth, it isn’t fair, as life itself isn’t fair. After all, it’s lonely at the top!

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