While in graduate school, a professor made a comment referencing the higher you go up on the corporate ladder, the more unlikely it is people will tell you that you have bad breath. Most of us chuckle, but this statement is more of a truth than a joke. It is lonely at the top. Savvy executives learn quickly whom they can confide in; savvy employees couch their up-line advice in terms of what they think the executive wants to hear.
There is an intangible positional authority that comes with an executive role. Executives are perceived as walking pink-slip dispensers and employees paying attention to their survival instinct will busily carry out what is asked, even if it was just an errant thought spoken out loud by the executive. Executives soon realize that every word they speak and every action they perform, has an audience that is always listening and watching. If they are not careful executives will create organizational flow charts populated by yes-men creating emotional breakwaters for the chief executive, keeping them happy but ill-informed.
Executives learn to trust very few people and that befriending those who work for them often doesn’t end well. Befriending subordinates may incite those not so favored to view the leader as playing favorites and the befriended subordinate see the executive as “power hungry” when their actions differ from his/her opinion. In their Machiavellian maneuvering to climb the corporate ladder some employees will take advantage of their relationship with the executive further inspiring the executive to keep his employees at arms-length.
While research concedes that it is lonely at the top, there is no clear agreement as to its source. In an article, Executive Depression: It’s More Than Lonely at the Top, author Bryan Ochalla quotes a psychologist as to the reason. Ochalla writes that according to Gene Ondrusek, Ph.D. who is a San Diego-based psychologist, it is a result of going up the ladder with limited valuable feedback. Ochalla goes on to say that executives are “cut off from… social support”. In an article in Forbes, It Really Is Lonely At The Top, by Roger Trapp, he quotes “Indeed, 93% of the business leaders questioned said that prospective CEOs required more specific preparation for the top role.” If every chief executive were prepared, would the loneliness go away? Preparation in and of itself is likely not the solution, but the executive can minimize the feelings of loneliness, but it takes dedicated focus and work.
Here are several ideas that help minimize the loneliness and help the position be exhilarating.
- Before taking on the role, talk to someone who is in an executive role about the realities of the role including loneliness and what s/he has found that works to reduce it
- Talk to one or two colleagues you trust, who are in a similar role about what they have found that works to reduce loneliness and helps them to feel more exhilarated in the role
- Find a safe outlet to brainstorm and think through plans, visions, problems and strategies, such as a non-competitor in a similar position that you trust or an executive coach
- Concentrate on doing something you enjoy, every day, such as a walk, phone call to someone special in your life, an exercise work-out, or a hobby once you get home even if it is 15 minutes a day
- If you are a person of faith, take time each day to study and pray before work and throughout the day
- Remind yourself often that in the whole scope of life, the role you are fulfilling is important work, but not your life. Ensure that work is not your only focus, but that you have a balance with time for family, friends and personal interests.
There are realities related to being alone that accompany an executive role, but it is also exhilarating to be able to determine the focus of a company and take it to places you have only dreamt about. If you experience loneliness, try one or more of the ideas to see what works for you and minimize isolation.