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Loneliness At The Top – The CEO Loneliness Guide to Survival

Last Modified On: March 14, 2024, Author: Amy Sanchez

You’ve made it to the top coveted position.  And while society spends plenty of time portraying the glamour of being the top dog, what they don’t reveal is that there is loneliness at the top as per some CEO's experience. Hence, CEO loneliness is really something that you shouldn't ignore if you wish to be successful in the long run. If you’ve struggled with this yourself, rest assured, you are not alone. According to Harvard Business Review, half of CEOs express feelings of loneliness and of that group, 61% believed it hindered their performance.  If you’re a first-time CEO, the likelihood that you’ll fall into this category increases.

One of the few studies conducted to examine work loneliness concluded that, in addition to being a private experience, work loneliness is also a social phenomenon, observable by an employee’s coworkers. It has a significant influence on employee work performance, both in direct tasks, as well as effectiveness.  In short, the CEO loneliness you experience not only feels lousy but it may wreak havoc on your effectiveness as a leader.

There are many reasons for this loneliness at the top.  When you’re a top leader, people start to treat you differently especially because of your leadership skills.  You now have the power to literally make or break people’s careers.  That knowledge can lead people around you to act skittish in your presence, try to “suck up,” or avoid you as much as possible out of fear.  Either way, you’ve gone from being one of the pack to the lone member in a league of your own.

You carry the weight of the company on your shoulders.  When things go well, people pat you on the back.  But when things turn sideways, people are quick to criticize.  That’s a lot for one person to carry.  And being CEO means you must maintain a certain air of confidence and clarity. So how do you gracefully shoulder this responsibility while still tending to your own human needs?  I’ve pulled together some guidance to help you maintain your sanity while you run a thriving business.

Tip #1: Avoid loneliness at the top by building an executive team that you know and trust

Ensuring that people will back you when you’re not in the room will put your mind at ease.  If you’ve hand-picked your team, you’ve presumably already done this.  But it’s rare to be given that opportunity.  If you’ve inherited a team already in place, take the time to get to know each person and understand their motivations. By really listening to others and showing them that you are looking out for them, quid pro quo says that they will also look out for you.  Having the title CEO certainly gives you clout and credibility but nothing can override the basic human need for acceptance and belonging.  Find ways to connect with your VPs  (and others in the company) to build mutual respect and allegiance. It will help you avoid the phenomenon of CEO loneliness. It's lonely at the top but you can definitely avoid it with proper planning.

Building a strong support system is crucial for any leader, as it ensures that others will support and advocate for you even when you're not present. While hand-picking your team provides an opportunity to assemble a cohesive and aligned group, it's not always possible. In situations where you inherit a team, it's important to invest time in getting to know each person individually and understanding their motivations.

Effective leadership begins with active listening and genuine empathy. By taking the time to listen to your team members' perspectives, concerns, and aspirations, you demonstrate that you value them as individuals. This creates an environment of trust and mutual respect, fostering a sense of loyalty and support.

It's essential to show your team members that you have their best interests at heart. When they see that you genuinely care about their well-being and growth, they are more likely to reciprocate by looking out for your interests as well. Building strong relationships based on trust and reciprocity forms the foundation for a collaborative and supportive team dynamic and may help you avoid the feeling of loneliness at the top.

As a CEO, your title may grant you clout and credibility, but it's important to remember that human connection and a sense of belonging are fundamental needs for everyone. Seek opportunities to connect with your VPs and other colleagues within the company. Building mutual respect and allegiance through open communication, shared goals, and collaboration can strengthen relationships and foster a culture of support throughout the organization.

Additionally, creating a culture of inclusivity and empowerment further reinforces the sense of belonging within your team. Encourage open dialogue, value diverse perspectives, and provide opportunities for growth and development. When individuals feel seen, heard, and valued, they are more likely to stand by your side and support your leadership.

Remember, building a supportive network takes time and effort. It requires consistently demonstrating your commitment to the well-being of your team members and fostering an environment of trust and respect. By investing in these relationships, you cultivate a team that will back you, support your vision, and contribute to the collective success of the organization.

Tip #2: Get Over CEO Loneliness By Connecting With Fellow CEOs

No one can understand the burden you carry like someone else who wears your shoes.  There are several CEO Peer Networks out there already and more popping up daily as people continue to understand the importance and value this can provide.  Some of the largest networks that facilitate meetings between CEOs include the Young President’s Organization (YPO)The Chief Executive Network (CEN), Vistage, Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), and G100. There are also groups for specific groups, who may encounter unique challenges.  A group designed specifically for female CEO’s is Women’s CEO Roundtable.  Find a group that works for you and start to connect with others who are experiencing similar challenges.  In addition to helping to tackle the loneliness factor, you may find new, creative solutions to company challenges that you’re navigating.

Some of the well-known CEO peer networks include the Young President's Organization (YPO), The Chief Executive Network (CEN), Vistage, Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), and G100. These networks facilitate meetings and interactions among CEOs, providing a platform for sharing experiences, insights, and best practices. Engaging with CEOs from diverse industries and backgrounds can offer fresh perspectives and innovative solutions to the challenges you may be navigating.

Furthermore, there are peer networks specifically designed for groups that encounter unique challenges. For example, the Women's CEO Roundtable is a group created specifically for female CEOs, addressing the specific issues and opportunities they face in their leadership roles. These specialized networks can provide a supportive environment where individuals can connect, share experiences, and empower each other.

By joining a CEO peer network, you not only tackle the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can come with the role but also gain access to a wealth of knowledge and expertise. Collaborating with fellow CEOs allows you to tap into a collective wisdom and learn from the successes and failures of others. It's an opportunity to expand your professional network, build meaningful relationships, and find support during both the highs and lows of leadership.

When searching for a peer network, consider your specific needs, preferences, and the kind of support you are seeking. Look for a group that resonates with your values, industry, or specific challenges. Participating in regular meetings, events, and forums offered by these networks can provide ongoing opportunities for growth, learning, and collaboration while simultaneously taking you away from that daunting feeling of loneliness at the top.

Remember, being part of a CEO peer network is a two-way street. By actively engaging, sharing your experiences, and contributing to the success of others, you not only benefit from the collective wisdom of the group but also strengthen your own leadership skills and contribute to the growth of your peers.

Tip #3: Identify a trustworthy and neutral sounding board

While it's lonely at the top, you still need someone you can talk to when times get tough.  This trusted person should allow you to freely express yourself without being judgmental.  This can be a mentor, an executive coach, a therapist, etc. It’s important to find someone who has no stake in the outcome- your spouse and co-workers can’t be 100% objective as your decisions often impact their well-being.  They will ideally help you work through your challenges by asking the right questions and avoid telling you what to do.  Once you have identified your trusted source, they can be your go-to when things start to reach a breaking point so you can work through complex situations in a safe space and make decisions that align with your values and unique leadership style.

Finally, a CEO-survival guide focused on loneliness would not be complete without an acknowledgement of the need to find time to recharge.  When this topic (inevitably) comes up with my clients, it’s often disguised as regretfully lashing out, crumbling relations at home, or health conditions that pop up.  Consider for a moment that, like a car, you have a tank.  Instead of a tank filled with gasoline to keep you going, it’s a tank filled with self-care. The more you neglect this, the closer to ‘E’ your tank will get. And when your self-care indicator gets too low, this is the place where regrettable action (or inaction) happens. While it's lonely at the top, taking precautionary measures in advance me greatly help you avoid what might come when you face a similar situation.

Be sure to find ways to fill your tank.  There are basic ways to do this that apply to everyone like getting enough sleep, finding time to connect with people you care about, and eating a balanced diet and getting exercise.  For some people, heeding those needs are enough to avoid letting your tank get too low.   For others, and in times when stress in particularly high, you’ll need more.  The “more” I’m referring to is different for everyone.  For some, it’s meditation.  For others, it’s an escape to nature.  Or maybe even just some quiet time to read a book of your choosing.  A lot of my clients struggle with this suggestion.  After all, if your tank is low, chances are you have very little, if any, free time (being overbooked often coincides with a low tank).  But I guarantee, if you find time to fill your tank amongst the chaos, you will become even more effective and more productive.  So, if you calendar time for self care (even ten minutes a day will suffice), your output will multiply, leaving you more time to get things done.

If you implement all the tips above, it’s likely that the loneliness at the top you’ve been experiencing will dissipate, or at the very least, minimize significantly.  You’ve worked hard to get where you are.  Apply that same dedication and determination to ensuring that you have a long and healthy career as a CEO.  Years down the line, when you’re retired and have time reflect on your experience, you’ll be glad you did.

About The Author

Leadership Consultant and Coach Amy Sanchez

Amy Sanchez is a certified executive and career coach located in the Bay Area who specializes in helping mid- to senior-level executives achieve their full potential and build the lives they want.

She has an MBA from USC’s Marshall School of Business and 13 years of corporate experience.

She is a skilled coach and neutral partner who provides clients with tangible tools and effective guidance to successfully navigate the waters of this fast-paced, hyper-connected, high-stakes job market.

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