Is It Really Lonely at The Top?

By Dr. Francis Eberle

I know you have heard or read more than once that it is lonely at the top. If you believe this then it is likely you will be a lonely leader. Results of decisions do ultimately lie with the leader alone, but why does it have to be lonely?

It can start with small things. One day as a new Executive Director, I was in rush and needed to get a few copies for a meeting. I went to the copier and was interrupted by an assistant who said, “Oh don’t do that. I will do it for you from now on.” It was very nice of her and her intention was in line with her job. However, the idea that I couldn’t make my own copies was foreign and led me to wonder if I had changed.

I had always prided myself in not being “better” than others. To me everyone’s time is valuable. We are all in this together and we have to work together. I thanked the assistant and she made my copies. But there were times when I needed copies and didn’t have time to ask, so I just made them. I was not being obstinate, but I didn’t want to simply wait at my desk. One bonus for my behavior was that I often would get to have a 5-minute impromptu conversation with a staff member. Was this wasting my valuable time? My belief is it is important to find and take opportunities to talk with others, and to learn about them as people.

Once the title “leader” is given, it seems suddenly one becomes different from everyone else. Yes, you have more responsibility, and yes you become accountable for everything in the company. Yet, you are the same person, so should you now change? If so, what should change and what shouldn’t? A new leader has positional power but not necessarily authority. Making decisions that don’t represent your beliefs or goals does illustrate that you can make decisions, but those decision can cause others to see you differently from what you want and could ultimately undermine your authority. Make decisions to further your goals and the vision.

Wielding power is different from using power to learn, engage and involve. What can you change to reduce the loneliness at the top?

Time: If you believe your time is truly more valuable than anyone else’s then you won’t spend time with others. How you use that time is what is will be noticed. If you only talk with folks when there is a task to be done, you will become lonely. Be authentic and show you are interested in others as people and talk with them at every opportunity you have. You may have to change how you use your time. If you can’t find the time, then schedule time in your day to walk around and just speak with your colleagues.

Performance: If you care about the performance of your company, talk with people above and below you. Listen to their ideas and suggestions for improvement. Gather information all the time. Learn what they do, what they know, and whether they have the resources and support to do their work. Creating a structure can partially replace impromptu conversations. I once created a monthly multi-level informal group to meet at lunch to talk about anything. Mostly they wanted to talk about what they were learning and wanted to improve. We never made decisions, but I learned a lot. You can’t always learn this type of information from your leadership team, so you may need to change your information gathering.

Decisions: If you care about decisions sticking, then include others in them. If you make all of them by yourself, you are implying that no one else in the company is a smart as you or can make them. A book titled The Contrarian's Guide to Leadership by Steven Sample describes his strategy as Chancellor of the University of California System with 190,000 employees to push decisions to the leadership team or even lower. He empowered his leadership team to make decisions by presenting issues as grey, not black and white. They then would have to debate them to move towards a solution. Consensus is not always possible, but if people are involved in formulating a decision then they are more likely to be invested in it.

Vision: If you care about engagement and retention of your employees, share with them your ideas and where the company is going. Articulate how what they are doing is helping the company get there. Sharing the vision and their role in it is very helpful for engagement and retention, particularly with younger employees. Every employee wants to know the why of your company. Think of this sharing as a process like talking to a parade where you continually have to repeat what you say as the parade goes by, rather than just sharing at an annual event. You may need to change your thinking about how you share your vision from an event to a process.

Hopefully you see a pattern here. Do any of these examples seem like they are lonely endeavors? When considering solutions to problems, improving performance, processes or culture, you should collect data, ideas and perspectives. Value your team and others as people not just employees. If you are engaging with people, they will be more excited, and you will less likely be lonely.