The phrase “it’s lonely at the top” is cliché and a bit trite, but it does speak to a much broader danger. As I talked about in “‘it’s lonely at the top’ – Leadership Isolation” (click here if you have not read that article), there is a real and present danger of individuals involved in leadership to become lonely in life. Many times loneliness puts leaders on a course spiraling towards isolation and this often ends in colossal moral failures of any and all varieties.
In my experience of both leading and in being directly exposed to high level leaders in the business, education, ministry, and non-profits worlds, I feel that some of the reasons that leaders become dangerously isolated are the following:
- No one knows the extent of your job – the higher one gets in organizational leadership, the less direct oversight they have. With this comes greater freedom in scheduling and even in setting up job responsibilities of the leader. His/her bottom line is the health and growth of the over-all organization. If it is growing and thriving, then everyone trusts that the leader is doing his job well. They are generally left alone. What happens is that in the process, fewer and fewer people actually know exactly what the leader does with his days. This definitely leaves the leader vulnerable to isolation. Sometimes a feeling of being “above accountability” sets in. Sometimes it’s as simple as the leader becomes lonely, even though they are constantly surrounded by others.
- Few people are completely comfortable, open, and honest with you as the leader – the higher one gets in leading others, the more he is viewed as “the boss”. This can then slide people into viewing leadership as almost an impersonal characterization of what people expect the leader to be, not necessarily who he/she actually is. People begin viewing leaders simply by their title and less as a person. Leaders feel this and will often withdraw as a result. Sometimes it is out of arrogance or for “the good of the company”, but subordinates withdrawing from leadership often trigger a deeper response of withdrawal from the leaders themselves.
- High responsibility of others brings an emotional price tag – With leadership, comes greater responsibility. Everyday decisions by high leaders start affecting greater numbers of people’s lives. This is heavy and often becomes a drain to those in leadership. I know this has been the case for me personally. Fatigue of constantly making decisions that are having real impacts on real people’s lives takes its toll on those making the decisions, especially given the fact that most leaders genuinely care for those they are leading. Leaders have to fight not “circling the fences” emotionally over time from the weight of daily decision making. Withdrawal can become a copping mechanism towards the emotional fatigue that inevitably comes with being in leadership.
- You often work long hours – it goes without saying, but most of the time those of us in leadership are putting in long hours that others just don’t see. Weekend breakfast meetings to assess the health and fitness of subordinates. Late night Skype meetings with stake holders in other time zones. Emails to people that just have to hear directly from the leader on THIS certain case. The work load piles up and can often take a serious toll. This brings about isolation from not only friends, but also from family and from emotional balance giving hobbies and activities.
- Someone is constantly disappointed by or angry with you – As I said in an earlier post (click here for article), you must say NO to people often in leadership. No matter who you are, it is not fun disappointing and/or angering people. Leadership will always demand difficult decisions be made. There are always those that feel slighted by any and all decisions that are made of any consequence. With people always upset with you, it’s really easy to withdrawal and become increasingly isolated while in positions of leadership.
*** Additional thought. . . my friend Lee Ferguson brought up a great point in the comments of the last article. The personalities of those in leadership are also major factors that often cause isolation. Often times, people are placed in leadership because they are hard driving, focused people. “Type-A” personalities, if you will. People with this personality type are often seen as distant by others and are, in reality, sometimes people that work best alone. They push hard, are creative, and often push others away not even realizing it. We could go much further into this, but I will leave it here. I do agree with Lee, though, in that the personalities of leaders often further leaves them vulnerable to isolation.
While not all leaders are isolated, many are. These are some of the factors that I have seen in my own life and in the lives of others who are in positions of leadership that lead to isolation. In order to maintain a healthy emotional life, leaders MUST learn to overcome these issues that inevitably push them towards isolation.
“It is lonely at the top” is not just a trite little saying. It is a warning sign for at risk leaders.