Occasionally I notice a trend amongst my clients. I work with a certain type of client - smart, high achieving doers. But occasionally, I notice a specific thing that seems to be getting in everyone's way and recently, one of those themes has been loneliness. They say clichés are only clichés because they’re true and it seems being ‘lonely at the top’ is no exception.
Whether it’s the MDs and CEOs of SMEs that I work with, or some of the early stage business owners, loneliness and feelings of isolation seem to be a common, and often unspoken, issue.
On the face of it, when you’re working with a team at least, it seems strange. How can you be lonely when you’re surrounded by people? Well, as a leader, you hold a unique position in the business. You’re a key decision maker, you have access to more information than anyone else, and you’re supposed to know the answers. Your position gives you natural authority, power and responsibility, and to get things done you need to have respect. Apart from anything else, sometimes it can feel like you’re the only one that gets it.
Business leaders are faced with a difficult paradox. To command respect requires a certain sense of distance but you also need to have strong relationships to make it work. The way we naturally build relationships as humans is to share information about ourselves – to let people in. The more we share, the greater the trust, but also, the greater the risk. Letting people in can make us feel vulnerable, and in difficult times and times of contextual change such as exponential growth, that’s the last thing we want.
Early stage business owners can have it even worse. Often working completely alone and on everything, the physical isolation can be even more difficult to handle.
So how do you overcome this?
Make business friends
In my days as a senior leader and now as a business owner, one of my biggest wins has been to develop business friendships. People I trust and who share similar values. They’re usually peers and I’ve picked them up and nurtured their friendships along the way. You only need one of two business friends to really feel as though you have a good level of support. I make a priority of meeting up with mine every 1 or 2 months and although we have a good catch up on life in general, we also always discuss what’s going on in our businesses too. We ask each other for specific help at these meet ups and in between and it’s mutually beneficial to both of us.
The human mind is a really strange thing, and it likes to be right. So when you feel lonely, you tend to isolate yourself further. You have told yourself that no one wants to talk to you so by not reaching out to people, you are proving yourself right. This is counter productive and unhealthy but also understandable. It’s a downward spiral. Reach out to people, make the connection, you’re not the only one feeling like this.
Review your use of social media
Perversely, social media makes us feel more isolated not less. Endless amounts of photos of smiling people doing well, sharing their achievements and celebrating their busy, well connected lives can make us reflect on our own perceived isolation and loneliness in the worst possible way. You tell yourself success attracts success and you feel as though you’re on the outside of a big, fun party!
My advice, unfollow anyone who isn’t inspirational or is exacerbating those feelings of loneliness. Let your social media be a dynamic, shifting thing that gives you what you need when you need it. Follow artists, creators and thinkers rather than your competitors perhaps?
Recognise that it’s loneliness you’re feeling. Reach out and make connections. Don’t assume you have nothing to say.
Talk to your team
If you lead a team, talk to them. Don’t fall into the trap of oversharing in the hope of bringing them into your inner circle, ask instead how they are. Take genuine interest in what they’ve got going on. Get out there!
If you’re in your first MD or CEO role, or even in your first leadership role, which many of my clients are, then spend some time thinking about the boundaries that exist and how you want to be perceived as a leader. Don’t completely isolate yourself because you don’t know how to handle it. The biggest complaint I hear from team members is that their leaders lock themselves away when they’re under pressure. You need to be present.
Practice your active listening skills. The best leaders are the ones who listen.
If you're feeling lonely or isolated in your role as a senior business leader it can feel really tough. In many ways, you really are the only one that 'gets it', and that's why you're in the position you're in. Working with a trusted and experienced coach can help you to find the space to address some of the issues you face on a day to day basis in a 'safe' environment. Coaching can also accelerate your problem solving and decision making abilities, give you much needed perspective and challenge you when you need it.
If you'd like to chat about how I can help you with any or all of these issues, drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org