Leader, are you lonesome today?
Elvis Presley along with so many music legends have written songs about being lonely. “Are you lonesome tonight?” is one of many tunes that tells the story of a soul that feels abandoned and forgotten. Now while love songs and work don’t have a lot in common, one thing that does connect these two themes are loneliness, particularly in leadership.
Leadership. There’s a lot of responsibility encapsulated in one word. And so, there should be, because if your job involves leadership, you lead. You set visions, goals, you encourage and motivate people, you are expected to know a lot of stuff and make decisions. You are the barrier remover and the relationship builder. You are the strategist and visionary. People come to you for inspiration, advice and problem sharing and solving. To borrow a term from a children’s book, there’s a lot of taking from your bucket, but perhaps not a lot of filling your bucket. This can leave leaders feeling depleted, even burnt out and increasingly lonely.
How do we explain loneliness at work? This is difficult because just like stress, fatigue and burn out, it feels different in every person.
Loneliness at work and overall in society is on the rise. Research has found that leaders feel stress, alienation, loneliness, and emotional burn out. We know that loneliness impacts motivation, business results, decision making and professional and personal relationships. The research also demonstrates that there is a correlation between leadership and loneliness. “The “top” is not typically a crowded place.” (Rokash 2014) By the time you reach the top, there are less places to go for advice and support. For some, there is more perceived risk in seeking help from the apex. Research also shows that loneliness in small business owners and entrepreneurs is even higher than for those in larger organisations.
Just like stress, loneliness feels different for each person. It impacts our mental and physical health to varying degrees. It has no bounds when it comes to demographics, social status and geography, therefore being felt by anyone and everyone at some point in their lives.
Humans like to know they belong, and they relish in being part of something. When leaders progress their careers, this feeling of belonging and tangible contribution becomes more elusive.
There are ways to combat and reduce the feelings associated with loneliness at the top. Here they are:
- Genuinely acknowledge the feeling
No point ignoring it if it is the way you feel. Genuinely acknowledging it means you are accepting the way you feel and therefore you are less likely to adversely judge yourself for feeling that way. Let those close to you such as family members know how you are feeling. You may not be aware that the loneliness you feel could be impacting them too.
- Reach out to a trusted person in your world
This may be a friend, family member, mentor or coach. This one is easier said than done because it requires vulnerability, which some leaders avoid. Let someone know how you are feeling. Let them know what you need. If you just need to talk, without advice let them know. However well meaning, sometimes the delivery of advice when you’re feeling vulnerable is not always useful. If you are ready for advice, let them know that too. This will help them to help you.
- Connect with whatever makes you feel nurtured
Whether it’s exercise, a doona day, spending time with loved ones, listening to music or reading – do it. Do feel good stuff that soothes the soul. It’s about replenishing and filling your bucket. Increasing your activity outside of work, while time challenging is also important. This will maintain your social circles and keep you connected to people- remember we feel good when we belong, and we are part of something.
- Build new networks and relationships
This is not an easy one when you are feeling lonely. Even though connecting with others makes practical sense to combat loneliness, it’s often the last thing we want to do. However, getting out there and attending functions and events can provide networks outside of our organisations. In these networking functions – you aren’t the leader; you are just one of the group of participants.
- Think about the teams you belong to- what you give them and what you get from them
In a leadership role you will often belong to multiple teams, i.e. the Executive team and the team you lead if you’re not the CEO. The people in these teams are your people. Support can likely be found in these teams. If you find that your trust is wavering in some of these teams – try and get to the source of why. Feelings of distrust can increase loneliness as we tend to move away from people we don’t trust. However, addressing the source of the distrust can help as you get to really consider why you feel the way you do and what you can do about it.
- Recreate the narrative about leadership
Throughout history leaders have been positioned as strong and invincible. We are only now starting to really appreciate the benefits that come with demonstrating vulnerability. Vulnerability in leadership increases the authenticity of the leader. This in turn increases trust in the leader. If you are feeling lonely, reach out. Don’t play to the narrative that you must always be strong and invincible. You may be a leader, but you’re human too.
Leadership can be lonely however it is also rewarding and brings many moments of pride, challenge and joy as you lead a team to deliver on a strategy, positively impact communities and change lives. Through accepting that at times we will feel vulnerable and acknowledging that it’s ok, we will recreate the narrative about leadership.
Rita Cincotta is a Principal Consultant at Human Dimensions. Rita works as an Executive Coach and as a Consultant specialising in people strategies, creating high performing individuals and teams, diversity and inclusion, employee relations, talent management and leadership development.