Coping with the Loneliness of Leadership

By Lolly Daskal

One aspect of leadership many people don’t talk about is loneliness. As an executive leadership coach, I have access to concerns and issues that are rarely discussed in the open. Loneliness in leadership is real and causes significant difficulty and isolation for those who are experiencing it.

The higher up you go, the more pervasive loneliness becomes. In a recent study, half of the CEOs who responded reported feelings of loneliness. For new CEOs, the percentage rose to 70 percent. The responsibility of a role that involves making the toughest decisions alone—without supporters, mentors, or friends—creates a sense of loneliness few of us ever experience.

Loneliness can negatively affect your performance and effectiveness, lead to burnout, and do harm to both you and those around you. Every leader should have a set of skills for coping with loneliness on board. Here are some of the most important:

Dismantle silos. While organizations need some division to function, silos create isolation. Work to build and cultivate relationships within your organization, and eliminate as many isolating structures as possible. Bring teams and workers at all levels together to collaborate and socialize.

Foster a culture of trust and transparency. It’s not uncommon for people to withhold even important information from a leader. There are lots of possible reasons, but they all stem from a lack of trust—something that also contributes to isolation. Change the environment by showing you’re dependable, transparent with what you know, trusting, and trustworthy.

Seek support. One of the hallmarks of a successful leaders is knowing when to get help. Look up an old mentor or connect with a leadership coach or a counselor, but find someone who can help you regain perspective, align priorities, and adapt management practices.

Gather advisors. Assemble four or five wise individuals from different industries and positions who can advise and learn from one another in an informal advisory group. Among other advantages, you’ll have a group in which you can bounce around ideas, discuss fears and challenges, and gain perspective.

Read up. You’re not the only person to go through what you’re feeling, and reading—whether it’s a book or a blog post—is a great way to connect with shared experience and learn coping strategies and best practices.

Work to understand. Understanding the essence of loneliness can help you accept and cope with the reality. Simply acknowledging that you’re lonely is the first step in lifting the burden. Don’t try to escape the reality of what you’re experiencing. Remember, the only way out is through.

Loneliness does exist, but there are things you can do to cope and overcome. We are biologically, cognitively, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong to communities. The more you do to bring yourself back into that state of being, the more of its benefits you will experience.

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