Are you a lonely leader?

It may sound counterintuitive to imply that leaders are lonely, because they spend most of their workdays meeting and interacting with people. Even so, loneliness affects many leaders.

Loneliness is defined by Wikipedia as “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way.”

An RHR International 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey found that the “intensity of the CEO’s job, coupled with the scarcity of peers to confide in, creates potentially dangerous feelings of isolation among chief executives. Fifty percent of all CEOs report experiencing loneliness in the role.” 

So what causes a leader to feel lonely? CEOs surveyed explain it this way.

  •  “I carry a burden that no one else understands.”
  •  “None of my family or friends are CEOs. I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
  •  “I must appear confident, so I hide my vulnerability. The more I do, the lonelier I am.” 
  •  “I make significant strategic decisions that employees may not understand, even when I share my rationale.”

Loneliness has consequences

University of Houston Research Professor and New York Times best-selling author Brené Brown says, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually wired to love, to be loved and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” 

Executive loneliness and isolation are not only harmful to a leader’s well-being, but these emotions can damage the business. RHR found that 61 percent of CEOs surveyed believe that the isolation hinders their job performance.

Research found an association between loneliness, exhaustion, stress, depression, dementia, cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation, depressed immunity and strokes. Alcoholics Anonymous believes that loneliness can trigger a relapse.

How to manage loneliness

Loneliness can cause us to feel empty and unwanted. It triggers withdrawal and isolation. To counteract its impact, here a few steps that you can take.

  • Join a peer group, like Vistage. It provides a safe place to discuss your most vulnerable issues, both business and personal. One of my Vistage members says, “My trusted peers give me feedback that virtually no one else can, or will, provide. I gain new perspectives and receive insights into my blind spots.”
  • As much as possible, involve employees in problem solving. For example, one of my members established a system of problem solving and shared understanding. He meets weekly with a cross-functional team to discuss companywide issues, resources, priorities and three-year plans.
  • Be appropriately vulnerable and share what you can.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Develop a personal network with other leaders in similar roles.

It can be lonely at the top. Instead of letting it compromise your health and effectiveness, take the steps you need to to overcome it.