Most businesses start with a small, closely knit group of people working on an amazing idea. Later as they grow, teams get bigger, geographic presence gets wider, and the close knit family becomes a vast network of distant connections.
This change is the most dramatic for the leader at the helm. All of a sudden you are no more in a roomful of colleagues and friends. They now look up to you to make decisions and take actions that you may or may not be qualified for. That makes you feel inadequate.
But you are required to maintain a confident facade.
As you start feeling inadequate, you start distancing yourself from your team. You take on a mantle of arrogant confidence, that over time becomes a habit. Now because you’ve become aloof, people don’t want to approach you.
You’ve created a vacuum for yourself where you feel safe, but you aren’t.
According to a HBR survey, most CEOs have what is called an imposter syndrome. An irrational fear that we don’t know what we are doing, and that someone will eventually find out. What’s worse, because of their position of power, other people hesitate to talk to them and point out issues.
This is nothing but everyone’s insecurity at play.
The leader’s insecurity about his position and perception. The advisors’ insecurity about the leader’s reaction.
Unchecked, insecurity blocks out communication channels. No one comes forward to tell it like it is. Lack of communication creates trust issues and leads to isolation. It leads to a feeling that you have no one to turn to.
And THAT is why they say it’s lonely at the top.
Loneliness is not just old cat ladies sitting in decaying homes. It’s a common story in the corporate world.
In fact the numbers are staggering. In an HBR survey, half the CEOs admitted to feeling lonely. The situation is worse in the startup space.
Most founders are first time leaders, experimenting with the unknown, doing things on the fly. They are under extreme pressure to do it right – to make more money, to grow exponentially, and to give crazy returns to their investors.
They feel that they can’t afford to come across as uncertain. They need to show that they have got it all together. They need to put up a strong front even if they are having a meltdown inside.
Do they really?
Being an entrepreneur is an emotional journey. But often founders feel that sharing things could somehow make their position weaker.
In leadership positions you feel exposed. Are people using you for their own gains? Are they going to think less of you if they know the truth? Can you trust them?
Instead of having uncomfortable conversations, it’s easy to close off. You isolate yourself from your team, your friends, and even family. Leaving you with no one you can trust or rely on.
That makes you feel lonely. That makes you feel left out.
Loneliness is a situation of your own making.
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can feel lonely in a crowd, but feel connected with even one person you trust in.
Your position as a founder or CEO is not the reason for your loneliness. It’s your unwillingness to open up and involve people.
Katia Beauchamp, Birchbox’s CEO summed it up nicely: “If you feel alone, it’s self-inflicted, because there is a right way to involve the people who love you, who love the vision, and who love the customer.”
Nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness say that it negatively affects their performance.
Burnout causes 75 percent of executives to leave their jobs within 5 years. Research shows being lonely could even increase the chances of early death by 20 percent.
Overall, loneliness impacts productivity (38%), stress levels (68%), and relationships (43%).
What’s even more worrying is that you may not even know you are isolating yourself.
Research found that a CEO’s sense of being in control is a buffer against loneliness. A feeling of power can reduce your need to belong to social groups.
If you don’t feel the need to belong, you don’t make an effort to belong.
Being a leader is not easy. There is a dark side to positions of authority – insecurity, anxiety, fear, isolation, and a sense of power that feeds on itself. Constantly projecting a false image can be exhausting.
By concealing your true state of mind you are sabotaging your own game.
Being at the top doesn’t mean you have all the answers. As a CEO it’s easy to develop blind spots that can lead to costly mistakes. If you stop communication because you feel you know best, accepting feedback on your actions can be a challenge in itself.
What you need is a sounding board.
A circle of trust.
Would it be so bad to show vulnerability?
Not according to Patrick Frost, CEO of Swiss Life. To Patrick vulnerability means not being afraid to show weakness. He believes showing weakness fosters discussion about key problems. It allows other people to step forward and discuss important things.
Allowing others to see a vulnerable side to you, makes you more human. More approachable. When you confide in others they trust you more. When you let people see the real you, you break away the shell of isolation.
The first step to solve any problem is to first accept that there is a problem.
Many founder and CEOs are coming forward to accept that they are lonely and isolated and afraid of showing weakness.
They’ve seen the damage it can do to their performance and they want to fix it. They are looking for connections beyond the formal business network to get new opinions, unbiased feedback, and just have someone to confide in.
Leaders want to escape their bubble and share their feelings with a non-judgmental set.
Where do you find people who would empathize? It’s your friends, family, and people who’ve been through the same experiences.
It is important to lean into deep friendships. It’s important to connect with individuals who may have a similar experience (entrepreneurs connecting with entrepreneurs) or drastically different ones (entrepreneurs connecting with artists).
It’s important to stop talking shop and talk about you instead. The idea is to move beyond the talks of building partnerships to talks that connect you as individuals.
To foster friendship and genuine connection. To change the dialogue from “what do you do” to “what are you most excited about in your personal life”.
Mayo Clinic found that deep personal connections decrease stress, anxiety, and the risk of depression. Close relationships can change your fundamental biology – improving your immune system and reducing mortality.
Remember no one is an island. We do not succeed alone. Authentic leaders are not afraid to show that they need support, guidance, and human connection as much as anyone else.
Have you struggled with loneliness at the top? What can you do to build real connections, trust people, and expand the network you can rely on?
In a more connected world we have an opportunity to come together. Next time you feel lonely, try these things: