Why Leadership Is Lonely & 6 Reasons It Doesn’t Have To Be
“As a leader, you wouldn’t tell your team that you might have a meltdown by lunchtime or that your imposter syndrome is kicking your ass.” — Lauren Johnson, Berry Lemon Founder
“It’s lonely at the top” is a phrase we’re all familiar with — for good reason:
Because it is.
You might think that only those in the highest positions of leadership — presidents, CEOs, people who wear expensive power suits to work — are susceptible to this type of loneliness because of their roles, but you’d be wrong.
Loneliness and its consequences can affect anyone in a position of authority whether they’re leading a team of five people or 500.
After speaking with many leaders who shared their honest experiences with me, I discovered several recurring themes about leadership and loneliness:
- Having an elevated status makes it difficult to interact with subordinates in a way that allows you to forge close, personal connections.
- With fewer peers to commiserate with, it can be difficult to work through problems or face tough decisions alone.
- The power imbalance sometimes means withholding sensitive, confidential, or even harmful information from those you’re working with daily.
- The pressure to perform — successfully —often leaves you struggling with imposter syndrome, as though you’re not even qualified for the role, to begin with.
- The long hours spent working might bring a hefty paycheck but they come with a steep price tag: strained familial relationships, loss of social connections, and stress-related health risks.
The demands that come with being responsible for leading a team are vast and while leadership can be rewarding in so many ways, it can also be a source of loneliness and isolation.
Leadership loneliness isn’t a concept that is unique to our modern society; Andrew Jackson wrote about the loneliness of his role just four months into his presidency in 1829.
If you’re struggling with leadership loneliness yourself, you’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last — but it isn’t a fate that’s etched in stone.
In this article, I’ll cover:
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types that we might experience over the course of our lives.
Why Is Leadership Such A Lonely Role?
Leadership loneliness is the experience through which a person in a position of authority can feel isolated and alienated from their team.
It’s an odd contradiction that many leaders face — somewhere between intoxication and a burden — because although being at the top of the food chain has its perks, the obligations and challenges it brings are uniquely theirs.
And few on their team — if any — can relate.
I spoke with Brigit McCarthy of Management Library, who explained that “the more senior you are in an organization, the more likely you are to feel alone.”
She said that the elevated status that comes with being a leader makes it much more difficult to interact with others on a personal level.
Being unable to forge close relationships or even friendships with subordinates brings “a pervasive feeling of loneliness and isolation,” she said.
On the surface, what she told me is not that remarkable considering the power imbalance that accompanies a leadership role — nor is it uncommon.
Half of CEOs report feeling lonely in their roles, even though they might be surrounded by folks who are there to advise and support them.
Michael Bell, the founder and CEO of Manukora told me that, as a leader, “you have a unique set of challenges that your colleagues aren’t going through.”
“Employees usually have each other to lean on when the going gets tough, but CEOs don’t always have that luxury,” he admitted.
Leaders experience loneliness and isolation more than most employees or members of an organization — and although not everyone can relate, it isn’t difficult to understand why they struggle so much.
Fostering a vision and leading others toward those goals can place unrealistic expectations on leaders.
Add in a relentless work schedule that absorbs a leader’s time and the unavoidable scrutiny they can experience in their role — often from those working beneath them — and you’ve got the perfect recipe for feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
Leadership loneliness can arise from:
- Imposter syndrome or feeling underqualified for the job
- Imbalanced power dynamics between the leader and their subordinates
- Experiencing high amounts of stress related to making executive decisions, particularly for entrepreneurs
- The pressure to be infallible, despite only being human
- Having fewer places to go for support or lacking peers to connect with
- Needing to withhold secrets or confidential information, particularly things that will ultimately affect those working beneath them
- Lacking a healthy work-life balance that allows for social time with family or friends
The gap between those in a position of authority and others can widen so much that loneliness, social isolation, depression, and even health problems eventually set in.
As the most senior person of a company or organization, it’s inevitable that you’ll be treated and viewed differently than if you were in a subordinate position.
There is an imbalanced power dynamic at play and it is something that leaders must learn to manage effectively — but that’s a difficult challenge.
After all, it’s hard to become best friends with someone you might have to fire someday.
Leaders often have to keep highly confidential information to themselves, making them seem secretive — at least to their subordinates or others on the team who aren’t in the know.
This can lead to feelings of alienation, which can be difficult for those in a position of authority because they typically don’t have many peers as a support system.
Additionally, those in a leadership role have to remain in constant control — often presenting themselves as though they are infallible, even if they feel anything but.
They are expected to be strong, powerful, and confident — all while accepting harsh criticism, raising morale, and never being in doubt about tough decisions.
Lauren Johnson, founder of Berry Lemon, can relate to that struggle.
“As a leader, you wouldn’t tell your team that you might have a meltdown by lunchtime or that your imposter syndrome is kicking your ass,” she explained.
“No, you’ve got to keep it sure, strong, and fake it until you damn well make it,” she continued.
“Your team needs you to be a guiding light,” she said. “Your team needs to know that you believe what you’re creating — even when you’re not sure yourself.”
Many leaders have a hard time maintaining a work-life balance because they often feel as though they must spend all of their waking hours working to avoid failure.
When you have a group of people depending on you, no matter the size, it can make you feel like you can never take a break.
This is a heavy weight to bear, one that often causes leaders to become workaholics, spending less time with family and friends until one day, their social circle is practically nonexistent.
Lorie Carson, founder and marketing manager at Real People Finder, told me that she experienced leadership loneliness because she spent all of her time and energy on work.
“As a rising leader, I made this mistake far too frequently. And I still have to watch out for it,” she explained.
She said that as someone who takes initiative, it’s easy to devote all of your effort to your job — and little else.
“Naturally, this means that the leftovers go to my family,” she said. “I also have no time left for genuine relationships or even hobbies that I find therapeutic after I devote what little is left to my family.”
But that doesn’t have to be every leader’s fate.
How To Be A Leader — And Not Be Lonely In The Process
Leadership can be rewarding and when you’re working toward something that feels greater than yourself, it’s easy to devote all of your time and energy to it.
Still, bearing such a heavy weight of responsibility — day in and day out — can take a toll on even the most effective leaders.
If you’re reading this article because you’re struggling with leadership loneliness, it isn’t a sign that you’re not fit for your role.
In fact, it most likely points to the opposite — because you care enough about the situation to recognize that it’s creating conflict in your life and are seeking a healthy resolution.
That’s a good thing.
There are effective ways to deal with leadership loneliness — or avoid it altogether — such as:
- Consider executive or leadership coaching
- Find and connect with a mentor
- Seek out a new peer group — other leaders
- Maintain a full life outside of work
- Host social events for your team
- Read books by leaders you admire
Consider Executive Or Leader Coaching
If you’re someone in a position of authority, you might feel as though your sense of direction has to be infallible as you steer the ship with both hands white-knuckling the wheel — yet you’ve never taken a sailing class.
Executive coaching can offer a safe and confidential place to talk through your fears, ideas, and challenges with someone who can offer insight without judgment while providing actionable steps for improved performance and confidence.
A coach will ask questions, help you to set goals for improvement in the areas you need the most help with, and create a tailored agenda that results in positive change over time.
Even leaders need someone to lead them once in a while — and there is no shame in seeking a coach if you’re feeling unsure about your position or are constantly second-guessing yourself.
As we talked about earlier, senior roles within organizations require constant decision-making but often, they also lack peers as a support system.
Executive coaches act as outside advisors — offering unbiased opinions, feedback, guidance, and a plan of action when you need it the most.
Most coaching relationships last anywhere from six months to a year – or longer – depending on the goals you’re setting out to achieve.
If you feel like seeking the help of a coach is a sign of weakness, remember this: presidents, kings, and queens have advisors, too.
Everyone needs help sometimes — at the end of the day, we’re only human.
Find And Connect With A Mentor
Finding a specific person in your field who has been in your position can be extremely helpful because they’ve likely been where you are and can offer advice as you navigate your work life.
This is similar to executive coaching in some ways, only with a mentor, you’re working with someone one-on-one over a longer period — at least a year and often several.
An experienced mentor can steer you in the right direction when having to make hard decisions, share lessons they learned the hard way so you might avoid them, and act as a sounding board when you’re unsure of your path.
Meetings with a mentor tend to be less structured than with a coach, as a mentor is there for advisement only when you need it.
Coaches ask questions and help you set goals but when you’re working with a mentor, you’ll be the one asking questions and seeking guidance — and the agenda is set by you.
The process of mentoring is designed to help you develop into a better leader, taken under the wing of someone who’s been where you are.
And who knows, after working with a mentor in this capacity, you mind find yourself paying it forward by being a mentor to someone else in the future.
Seek Out A New Peer Group — Other Leaders
As we talked about earlier, senior leadership is at the top of any organization but that means that there are fewer peers to turn to.
When everyone you’re working with is subordinate, it leaves you with little in the way of a support system if you’re facing challenges or struggling with tough decisions.
So turn to peers on the other side of your glass door.
Join and participate in a leadership group or established network on social media.
It will give you a way to connect with other people in high-level roles and provide a place for discussion, commiseration, and reassurance.
Meetup has more than 4,000 leadership groups that are just a click away.
Although they may not be peers in terms of your industry — although you very well may meet some — the folks you engage with in this type of group can relate to what you’re going through as a leader, making you feel less alone in the process.
Maintain A Full Life Outside Of Work
As some of the leaders I spoke to earlier pointed out, it’s very easy for your job to take over your entire life if you’re not careful.
During the work day, 8 hours can become 12 or 14 in the blink of an eye, day after day, until suddenly, you realize your friends haven’t seen your face in months and your family has forgotten that you live with them.
It is vital to maintain a fulfilling life outside of your work.
I cannot stress this enough — you need to treat your family, your hobbies, and the (non-work!) things that make you happy with the importance of a board meeting or a business trip.
Schedule that time — on your calendar if you have to — because if you don’t, it will not happen.
Don’t set your hobbies and time with your family on the back burner.
The thing to remember is that we’re all here for a limited number of years and once they’ve run out, well…you know where I’m going with this.
You don’t want your future obituary to read:
“We’ll always remember the way her skin glowed so brightly, lit by the screen of her laptop as she stared into every night. We think her name was Barbara…or maybe was it Laura…it started with a letter of some sort.”
Making time for people isn’t just about how they’ll remember you later on, however.
Every day that passes is one less you get to spend with your friends and loved ones if you’re chained to your job.
You’ll miss out on a lot — parties, get-togethers, even nightly family dinners — and that time adds up, little by little.
Until one day, decades from now, all you’ll have left are the hobbies you finally have time for and very few memories of those you love most.
Host Social Events For Your Team
Being the boss at work generally means you’re stationed “above” everyone else but as we talked about earlier, that role can make it difficult to create or maintain close, personal relationships with those you work with.
Additionally, the “business” side of you is likely the only one they ever get to see.
Speaking from an employee’s standpoint, we tend to hold our bosses in high regard — they’re in charge of things and oftentimes, this makes them appear a little larger than life at the office.
It isn’t that we don’t see them as people — we do — but their higher position can be somewhat intimidating.
We’re lower on the food chain than they are, at least at work, which is the only place we know them.
If you’re in a leadership role and struggling with a lack of connection to those you work with, think about planning a fun activity or event for your team or employees outside of work.
Scheduling a social event or a picnic in the park can help them get to know you and each other better, which may lead to a more relaxed atmosphere during work hours.
By providing an opportunity to mingle in a location where everyone is on even footing — no one is the “boss” during happy hour — you can level the playing field and create an opportunity for deeper personal connection.
Read Books By Leaders You Admire
If you consider yourself a reader, there are plenty of biographies and memoirs from influential leaders about how they operate in business and the world.
These can be a great source of inspiration filled with actionable ideas you can apply to your own life.
Although there are more than 60,000 books about leadership on Amazon, a few you might be interested in checking out include:
- Leadership Rites of Passage by Rick Tirrell
- Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves
- Modern Leader by JeVon McCormick
- Leadership Strategy & Tactics: Field Manual by Jocko Willink
If you don’t feel like you have the “time” to read, try listening to audiobooks during your commute to and from work, and if the idea of reading for “fun” is something you struggle with, change your perspective on the activity.
It isn’t leisurely downtime — it is continued education that will help you to perform better at work.
Being a leader is rewarding but it can also result in feelings of loneliness and isolation.
People working in positions of authority carry a heavy slate of responsibilities that those working beneath them may never fully understand.
Although the power dynamic will likely always be tipped — you can’t have leaders without followers, after all — there are ways to mitigate the loneliness that arises during leadership.
It may seem lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be.