It’s Lonely at the Top, But It Doesn’t Have to Be

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Let’s assume you’ve gotten the big promotion to the C-level of your company, or despite this scary uncertain economy you’ve had the courage to start your own business. Congratulations! You continue to put in more than a full day. But now something is different — you have a strong feeling of being alone.

There are few surveys of business leaders and loneliness. It’s a subject absorbed in the phrase “It’s lonely at the top.”

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “It is strange to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.”

Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, came close to a definition of executive loneliness when, in his book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance,” he wrote about being an outsider in IBM but given the responsibility to change it in the 1990s. His personal reflection was, “I never entered it. I dreaded going into that house. I had to drive change, and I knew that all the reasons not to change were in those rooms.” He felt relatively alone in breaking habits and making the hard decisions that turned IBM around.

This feeling is immediately true for many people who start a business or are promoted to a senior level. Here’s why. There’s a dramatic shift in people’s perception of you. Your position puts you at a distance from the people who encouraged you and gave you good advice before, but who now seem more reticent. This new relationship seems more tentative, more formal and less frequent than before. Information is sanitized and filtered before it reaches you.

In some cases, they are protecting their weaknesses from being visible. They don’t want to be caught making a mistake. The consequences to them are different and more significant because you are now in charge of a lot of business functions and results. More people look to you to make many of the hard decisions.

Most business owners and executives are focused entirely on their business. That’s important to survive and prosper but they often need a break. Being a well-networked executive both inside and outside the business can provide access to other people to connect with. Having a trusted confidante to share not only your business challenges but also your personal challenges, can be a plus. There are also many external organizations that provide the opportunity to be with colleagues to discuss common business conditions and solutions. Organizations like Vistage, industry peer groups, and your local chamber of commerce can provide an antidote to loneliness.

When I started a business a while ago, I quickly learned the difference between solitude and loneliness. There were times I chose solitude and its reflective quiet time to think. When I felt alone, it was more daunting. Let me be clear, I’m not writing about clinical loneliness. I’m writing about organizational loneliness. That’s seen when everyone leaves the office and you’re left to complete the day. It’s seen at home in a quiet place when you’re preparing for tomorrow. It’s seen in not wanting to feel overwhelmed and not in control.

At the top, your challenges are significant and long-term, with the solutions not always apparent. I learned when I was willing to admit what I didn’t know, my team and others surprised me with good answers.

Expanding the variety of non-work things you do can help. Activities such as regularly exercising, attending community and cultural events, pursuing hobbies, volunteering within the local charities, taking mini-vacations and having some spontaneous family time are important in combating organizational loneliness and even burnout.

The more gregarious you are the less the feeling of being alone. But you don’t have a lot of time for socializing and small talk at work. If you tend to be reserved and more introverted, you may want to work alone — but not for very long. You have to reach out to others on your team for assistance. Since there’s much you have to do on your own, to who do you turn to dispel the occasional feelings of loneliness?

You can always turn to a trusted family member or your spouse for personal advice. They know you best and will always give you a chance to vent or relax and just talk about whatever is on your mind. They are the good listeners. A close friend can fill that same role. Sometimes it’s helpful to just pick up the phone for a quick call and know they are there for you. A voice is always better than a text message or voice mail when you feel alone.

Having experienced advisers can help. Professionals with fresh perspectives to build on can help you break free of the loneliness that can accompany a tough situation to resolve. An experienced coach can be a great asset — especially one who’s available 24/7, always has a new idea, builds new competencies to apply in your circumstances, and is a source of great encouragement.

Ultimately it’s your personality and leadership style that can make a big difference. Executives who are willing to collaborate often, who encourage feedback and frequently ask their teams for their thoughts, who are more informal in their relationships, and encourage dissent tend to feel less alone than the hard driving autocrat who refuses to delegate.

It is lonely at the top, and that can be an opportunity as well; it ultimately depends on you.

Bob Vecchiotti is is a business advisor and executive coach in Peterborough. He lives in Dublin.

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