Why many leaders feel “lonely at the top”
It’s a feeling so commonly held by successful people that it’s become an idiom: “It’s lonely at the top.”
This idiom speaks truth for many executives, and research shows that these executives aren’t alone in how they feel. A survey from RHR International found that half of CEOs experience feelings of loneliness in their careers, 61 percent of whom believe that this feeling hinders their performance.
Additionally, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies concluded that senior managers are lonelier inside and outside of work because of the demands of their role. This is especially true for executives like CEOs, who have no true peers at work.
While the top can be lonely, it doesn’t need to be. Here are six steps executives can take to feel less lonely at the top.
1) Executive coaching
By working with an executive coach, leaders will push themselves to grow while giving themselves the gift of mentorship. Executive coaches listen to problems and provide real feedback, something many executives can’t get at work.
Sure, an executive coach can’t be workday buddies, nor can they share the burden of responsibilities, but they can be a great guide. They’ve been there, done that. Every executive coach has made their share of tough decisions, likely experienced loneliness, and come out the other side to tell the tale.
2) Mastermind groups
Some of the finest minds in history rarely felt lonely at the top—instead, they reached the top and climbed higher. Why? Because they sought worthy peers to challenge and hold them accountable.
This is called a mastermind group. Napoleon Hill, author of “Think and Grow Rich,” wrote that mastermind groups allow executives to accomplish more in a year than an entire lifetime of working alone.
Peers are key to the success of these groups. When executives open up about goals, problems, and loneliness in a mastermind group, they can see that others have similar issues. Better yet, these others are willing to listen, provide advice, and hold the executives accountable to their goals.
It’s hard to feel lonely amid a group of aspirational people who push each other toward greatness.
3) Vistage groups
Vistage groups bring together the best of executive coaching and mastermind groups.
An executive who attends a Vistage group will quickly get to know the executive coach who leads the group. The coach will give feedback, listen to problems, and push executives to be the best versions of themselves. These coaches will also help expand the group’s horizons by bringing in outside experts.
Meanwhile, the other members of the group—each from different industries—will talk about their successes and struggles, including loneliness. This allows other executives to see that other executives, even in far-flung industries, experience their same fears, hopes and dreams.
Taken together, Vistage groups foster a powerful experience. They allow executives to see that they aren’t so alone—there are others on their same path.
4) Mindset training
Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck has spent her career researching the growth versus fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that their skills are capped out—those with a growth mindset believe that they can always learn more.
When executives change their mindset from fixed to growth, the world opens to them. A growth mindset gives executives permission to learn from everywhere and everyone. As Dweck writes, those in the growth mindset move away from “a judge-and-be-judged framework to a learn-and-help-learn framework.”
“Their commitment is to growth, and growth take plenty of time, effort, and mutual support,” Dweck writes. And that support, which an executive will give and receive, makes the world a less lonely place.
5) A great executive leadership team
Though half of executives reportedly feel lonely at work, that leaves half who don’t. Those who don’t feel lonely likely built a great executive team.
Executives should take great care when forming their executive team, as they must be sure that they can trust and honestly communicate with their team. That’s because a strong executive team is more than just employees. Its members can make great decisions, give new ideas, and provide top executives with tough feedback. This will make work more interactive and far less lonely.
6) A common vision
It’s tough to feel lonely when your team shares your vision. And a shared vision is exactly what will bring employees closer to executives, according to a survey cited in Harvard Business Review.
The survey found that 72 percent of employees and 88 percent of those in senior roles want a leader who is forward-looking. With a more willing group of employees and executive, we’re willing to bet the top is less lonely.
7) Hobbies and activities
Executives seeking excellence at work may also find value in seeking excellence outside of work. A great hobby or group activity allows for some play time, which helps reduce stress and increase connection with others.
For example, a paper published in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology finds that Nobel prize winning scientists are 2.85-times more likely than non-winners to have an artistic hobby, such as acting, dancing, taking photographs, or even blowing glass. In business, one example is Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who also DJs under the moniker DJ D-Sol.
While DJing may not be for every executive, an outside hobby is a great way to play, master a new craft, and feel connected.
Find your community
Vistage members often tell us that they feel less alone after joining one of our groups. Once they’ve seen that other executives fight the same battles as they do, Vistage members feel less lonely. Their struggle is validated.
That’s one of the big benefits of joining a Vistage group: You can see how other executives deal with their issues while realizing that there are other people in the same position as you. The world isn’t such a lonely place after all.
If you want to be part of a community of executives, find a Vistage peer advisory group near you.