Leader Isolation: 6 Ways to Conquer Loneliness at the Top

We are not alone…

…but sometimes it can feel that way.  Leadership can bring with it a sense of isolation.  You seem to be the only one bearing the burden of responsibility, setting the standard, and trying to balance the demands of your boss with the realities on the ground.

Today we’ll talk about how these things can leave you feeling a little bit lonely, and give you six solid ways to conquer that sense of leader isolation.


Leader Isolation - 6 Ways to Conquer Loneliness at the Top

It’s Lonely at the Top

Being a leader can be exhilarating, challenging, rewarding and fun.  But there can also be a down-side.  One problem is a sense of isolation.   A Harvard Business Review post noted that over half of CEOs feel a sense of loneliness, and 61 percent believe it hinders their performance.  Leader isolation is a problem.

This can be particularly true of new leaders and those chosen from among a peer group to take on a formal leadership position.

No doubt it can be lonely at the top.  There are several factors that can contribute to this sensation.

Why Do I Feel This Way?

Breaking from Peers.  One common cause comes when you have been promoted from among your peers and now are responsible for leading them.  You can no longer afford to be just one of the gang, but breaking out of the peer group can be hard on relationships that are important to you.

A question of motive.  Just as it might be hard for a rich person to truly know who his friends are, there can be a similar dynamic with positions of influence.  It may even cause you to question people’s motives.  Did they bring you that cup of coffee because they know you’re having a tough day, or because they want something from you?

Caught between.  Sometimes leader isolation can come from a sense of getting stuck between the competing demands of higher management and the needs of your team.  Getting pressure from both ends can leave you feeling like you are alone against the world.

Making the hard decisions.  Leader isolation can also come when you have to make an unpopular decision.  Sometimes leading well means saying no to people you like.

As Tony Blair says, “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes.  It is very easy to say yes.”

The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. – Tony Blair Click To Tweet

Saying yes is the path to being liked, and who doesn’t want to be liked?  But being able to say no when necessary to protect priorities and keep projects on track is the path to respect.  Problem is, that can be a lonelier road.

Resolving leader isolation is important, and not just because we don’t like to feel lonely.  Getting re-connected is also a way to improve our perspective, productivity, and decision making.  Here are six ways to make that happen.

Six Ways to Conquer Leader Isolation

  1. Make new friends on purpose. Breaking out of your peer group doesn’t mean you are suddenly without peers.  Seek out a new peer group – a network of leaders.

Look around your organization and think about who else is functioning at your level – it may be the people you see at the weekly meeting – that could be a good place to start.

When you make connections with others in your organization who are facing the same kinds of problems you are, you can leverage each other’s experience and find companionship at the same time.

It can be immensely reassuring to know you aren’t the only one wrestling with leadership challenges.

2.  Cultivate a mentor. Think about people outside of your “chain of command” that you admire as a professional.  Seek them out, offer to buy them a cup of coffee.

The perspective of someone successful who has been over the ground you are now walking can give you a big boost.  They can offer you ideas, direction, and a point of view you might not be able to see from your current place on the path.

Start out easy and just ask if you can bounce ideas off them from time to time.  Be careful:  if you bare your soul right after the coffee arrives, they might suddenly become “unavailable” the next time you want to talk.

Keep it light, short, tell them you appreciate their success and wanted to know what their thoughts are on something.  Most people are flattered to be asked for advice and are happy to give it.

You can even have more than one mentor; cultivating one from outside your organization is a good way to expand your horizons and gain greater perspectives.

  1. Form a Personal Board. As Kristi Hedges, writing for Forbes suggests, just as CEOs regularly assemble teams of trusted advisers to help them make tough decisions, you can do the same thing, regardless of your current level in the organization.  Pick four or five people you know to be knowledgeable, experienced, and trustworthy, and invite them get together.

You might be surprised to find that they feel the same as you and are happy to be a part of your little group.  It’s what Ben Franklin did when he formed his own little Mastermind Group a couple centuries ago.  The idea is just as valid today.

  1. Make outside friends. You should do this anyway.  If all you do is eat, sleep, and work, you risk losing balance, burning out and becoming an uninteresting “drone” with nothing to add to the conversation.

There are lots of ways to get connected – join a club, get on a sports team, volunteer at a charity, help out at church, start a hobby, offer the local Scouting organization some assistance, get involved in a service organization like Rotary…

There is no end to the ways to get connected socially with others, all it takes is a little initiative on your part.  And as you broaden your experiences with people outside your work environment, you will have more interesting things to say.

  1. Crack open a book. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it could help to pick up a book or two.  You aren’t the only person to ever supervise others or to feel a sense of leader isolation from trying to do it right.

When we read about the experiences of other leaders, it reminds us that sometimes leader isolation comes with the territory, and we can see how others have dealt with it.

It might be General Eisenhower in the lonely isolation of making his D-Day invasion decision.  Or it could be Earnest Shackleton waging war against polar extremes to bring his crew home to safety after two years of struggle.

Regardless, reading about the experiences of other leaders can be motivating, and give you a sense of companionship with successful leaders of the past.

  1. Host an event. As you move up, your relationship with your teammates changes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with them.  In fact, you should.

Whether your team is new or just needs some renewal, organizing an extracurricular activity once in a while is a great way to build team cohesion.

Solicit input from the team, pick something everyone can participate in, and then make it happen.  Doing things together outside the work environment can deepen the bonds of trust on the job.  Everybody wins.


A couple quick things to keep in mind as you reach out and make new connections:

Confidentiality.  As much as you may want to fill your new advisory board in on the latest drama with a particular person, don’t.  You owe all your teammates the courtesy of respecting their privacy.  There’s no quicker way to lose someone’s trust than to share personal issues with people who have no business knowing.  Worse, when others hear about it, their trust in you will evaporate quickly as well.

Responsibility.  With leadership comes responsibility – they are paying you the “big bucks” to make smart decisions and get results.  By all means seek relevant input from others as you sort out what to do, but in the end, the buck stops with you.

If things turn out well and you can safely pass on the credit, definitely do so.  But if everything goes sour, own the decision you made, and accept responsibility.  Any attempt to pass the blame to peers or mentors will immediately backfire and you are likely to find yourself more lonely than before.

As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, to give credit, leaders look out the window; to assign blame, they look in the mirror.

To give credit, leaders look out the window; to assign blame, they look in the mirror. – Collins Click To Tweet

Leader Isolation – The Takeaway

If there was one thing I could suggest as a great way to initiate any of these new relationships, it would be this:  Offer to help.

Everyone is looking for assistance in some way.  Few people are looking for more work.  If you want to open some doors, think about how you might be able to help someone, and offer it.

If you want to open doors, find a way to help. Click To Tweet

When you show yourself first willing to help others, they will be more likely to repay the favor, and pretty soon, you’ve made a new friend.

As you take on more responsibility in your organization, if you’re doing it right, there’s a chance you will feel a sense of leader isolation at times.

That doesn’t mean you have to be lonely.  It’s just a sign that it’s time to expand your circle of connections.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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