It’s lonely at the top: effective tips for battling isolation in leadership

If there’s one thing we’ve noticed time and time again when working with different organisations, it’s this: the higher you move up the ranks, the fewer people you have to talk with who can connect with what matters to you in your leadership role.

Normal though this experience may be, it’s likely that the higher you climb the organisational structure, the more isolated you are likely to feel.

Contributing factors include the scope of your role, the scale of your responsibility, the number of people you oversee as well as the sheer visibility of what you say and do.

Here are some common patterns we’ve observed among leaders battling with the isolation factor in leadership:

  • You feel like you’re carrying most of your responsibilities yourself
    For many leaders who experience the isolation factor, it’s not uncommon for them to have supportive spouses, a strong family bond and a close circle of friends, some who go back to childhood or university days. Yet if this is you, you won’t want to burden those closest to you by talking about your challenges.
  • You have to watch what you share
    If you’re an isolated leader, you probably remain on your guard because of your increased visibility. People know how many times you’ve walked through their department or if you showed up at the office party. You might also say something in casual conversation that other people will interpret as a request. A throwaway comment for you can be taken as something to be committed to and developed by them.
  • Negativity has a strong hold on your life
    You start to withdraw and to rein in your emotions because of the isolation factor. You’re worried about what people are thinking about you and your decisions. Leaders can be thrown off balance by uncertainty as much as anyone else — but ones experiencing isolation won’t want anyone to know. If people knew, their uncertainty would only make things worse.

Is there light at the end of the tunnel if you’re feeling isolated in your leadership role?  We’re certain that you can effectively manage the isolation factor. You might not be able to remove or conquer it completely, but it doesn’t have to limit your effectiveness as a leader.

Those who struggle with isolation don’t want to step down from their leadership positions — they enjoy the opportunity to guide and shape the direction of their organisations. For many, they recognise they are the right leader at the right time asking the right questions in the right place. But they also want to find ways to confront their isolation, integrate it into their lives, find ways to be authentic and still have meaningful interaction with others.

Here are our top tips on how to do this:

  • Talk to your peers
    Engage in conversations with your contemporaries and peers by participating in executive management training programmes. You may not want to show any vulnerability to a competitor in another company, but you can be honest when talking with those leaders from other fields. As you share the same concerns, you can connect with someone who understands what happens at that level of responsibility.
  • Find an executive coach
    Executive coaching can help leaders to integrate the reality of isolation into who they are. Through coaching, you’re asked to consider who you will be in the midst of situations where you feel isolated. Deliberate options are cultivated that leave coachees feeling stronger and better equipped for all of life’s leadership challenges.
  • Recognise the importance of humility
    You can recognise that you’re a person of significant influence with great responsibility while still maintaining a proper perspective on how you got to this place. You didn’t reach this level of leadership alone, and you don’t continue serving in this role alone. Humility means having a healthy sense of who you are and how you need other people to thrive in your leadership position.

Being a leader can be an isolating experience at times. But by remaining authentic, recognising the power of humility, whilst also acknowledging and accepting a certain level of isolation that comes with the role, you can be reconciled to life’s realities in a way that brings you stability and enjoyment.

With thanks to Lori Collins’ leadership blog for inspiration for this post.