Being the top dog in your business is great – it is a validation of your hard work, aptitude, and oftentimes your attitude, too. Being top dog in the business world could mean that you’re an entrepreneur whose business venture is successful, it could mean you are a CEO, or it could mean you’re the Chairperson to a reputable board. As exhilarating as it is to go about your professional duties, navigate challenges for your company, and reflect on your own accomplishments, there definitely is a flipside to being top dog:it is undeniably and indisputably lonely on top.
My earlier post on fear management as a leadership skill points out why few leaders talk about fear since they can be perceived as weak. Similarly, the very term “executive loneliness” makes our minds conjure up images of a sulking executive in a swanky office – think poor little rich kid! But this image couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, executive loneliness is real, relevant, and needs to discussed more openly. It is, however, not hard to manage. Like most other challenges, we need to understand what causes it and take steps to minimize the negative effects of executive loneliness. Managing executive loneliness can be tricky but is not impossible.
This particular post will highlight the factors that cause executive loneliness. From my own experience, I’ll list and discuss four major factors that contribute to executive loneliness.
Friendship at work – It’s complicated!
Friendships in the workplace are complicated simply because doing the best for your business may not always be doing the best for your friend at work.
While it is absolutely necessary to be friendly at work, being a close friend to your colleague is hard as a CEO or manager. There are many times personal relationships at work can get in the way of professional decisions when they shouldn’t. The decisions you make professionally cannot be biased because you are friends with your peers and the people reporting to you.
It is also necessary to add here that forging true friendships at workplace is also difficult because not many people are truly comfortable being friends with their bosses. Even if you are the most approachable founder or CEO, people can have reservations about truly opening up to you.
Impostor Syndrome is Real
As strange as it sounds, impostors in the C-Suite are real. Scientifically speaking, the impostor syndrome is one in which people are not able to internalize their accomplishments. These impostors attribute their accomplishments to extraneous factors such as luck, timing, other people’s help, etc. rather than attributing their success to their own ability.
The loneliest CEOs and business leaders I’ve met, however, suffer from an impostor syndrome of a different kind. They feel the need to wear a mask when they step into their offices. This mask could be one that intimidates, placates, or feels the constant need to show off skills in order to seek approval from others. Highly successful people tend to do this because they feel they don’t want to get found out for who they truly are. This type of impostor syndrome occurs because leaders could be insecure in their own skin and refuse to believe that they truly deserve their positions.
The more energy leaders spend on wearing a mask and acting, the more they are ultimately left with less energy to forge genuine connections with their employees. The loneliness caused by the impostor syndrome is self-inflicted and can be avoided by being an authentic leader rather than trying to live up to the traditional ideas of what a leader must be.
It’s a paradox
Most professionals feel they need to walk on eggshells around their bosses, but many don’t realize that their bosses need to walk a tightrope too! As you build your business and manage it, there is a certain energy and level of passion that you bring on board. As much as your employees gravitate towards this energy, they can also become overwhelmed by it.
A similar tug of war happens in your mind too. As much as you want give to your company, you also want hold back to so as to restrict any unhealthy dependence on you as founder or CEO. There comes a time in every business where employees need to independently make good decisions. So here, you too gravitate towards employees and then need to pull back at times.
Trying is manage this paradoxical situation is tricky business. You are required to constantly strive for a balance – how much to give and how much to hold back – without becoming disruptive to the business and your employees.
It’s a tough job
As I stated earlier, as a leader, you need to make decisions that are best for your business. There are many hard decisions you are probably going to have to make by yourself, and not everybody in your company is going to be happy about them. Sure, you can get counsel from your peers and even external advisors, but as top dog, the final decision is yours to make. In these situations, the very nature of your job can make you feel lonely.
Another factor that makes it lonely on top is that there are not many people in your workplace who will be able to empathize with the challenges you face, and for good reason. In most cases, your employees do not fully understand your job or the situations you need to navigate. Moreover, if you are a founder, it is just plain wrong to expect your employees to feel the same way you do about your business.
The above four factors are the ones that in my opinion contribute the most to executive loneliness. Identifying the factors that contribute to loneliness is the crucial for managing the issue. I urge you all to list more causes for executive loneliness in the comments section.
My next post will strive to list several effective methods to tackle executive loneliness.
Edwin has authored 9Lenses Insight to Action:A Social Approach to Business Optimization and Snapshot9 What’s Your Picture?:Accelerate Your Business Performance. Click here to download the first chapter of 9Lenses Insight to Action for free!