We've all heard the expression, "It's lonely at the top." Sometimes it's said to comment on the challenges of the US President or describe the struggles of a business leader. It is usually said when observing a leader who is agonizing over a tough decision in a difficult situation.
The fact is that feeling "lonely" is often a big part of leadership. A single mother raising a family or a leader trying to start a non-profit know this feeling as well as big corporate executives. They all make decisions that impact others and, in their deliberations, feel they can't really consult those others. Isolation is something that leaders must learn to deal with. Why?
When we first start out our careers/lives, we are closely observed, mentored and coached. Someone is usually watching. These observers could be bosses, parents or teachers. As we get older and more senior in organizations (and families), our role changes. We are the ones doing the watching and there may be no one "senior" to us who is observing us and telling us things we may not want to hear, but need to hear in order to progress.
As a result of this phenomena, I often find that leaders can become quite isolated. For example, in a big company, most senior executives interact mainly with subordinates. Subordinates are not highly motivated to stick their necks out to criticize or give advice to the executive -- they are more focused on making a good impression (which may involve telling the executive what the subordinate believes he or she wants to hear).
Executives may often choose to sit on an "executive floor" or in a big office which is physically removed from the rank and file. If they aren't careful, these senior executives may even give off a vibe that they don't really want to hear criticism and feedback. As a consequence, they may not be receiving the advice, coaching and feedback that they desperately need. The impact of this is that the senior executive may be the last to hear constructive suggestions that could help him improve his performance and take actions that could help improve his organization.
Isolation is a phenomena that leaders must be aware of and take steps to counteract. If you suspect you're becoming isolated, I would suggest asking yourself a few questions:
1) Who is my coach? If the answer is "I don't know" or "I don't have one", it is worth reviewing the next questions.
2) Do I cultivate subordinates and/or other key relationships that could yield advice? Have I developed a support group composed of people who care enough about me to tell me things I may not want to hear but need to hear?
3) Am I willing to ask for help and advice? Am I good at asking questions instead of just making declarative statements?
4) Am I willing to listen to advice?
These are basic questions which are essential to leadership of all types. In my experience, most of us fall into periods in which we are unable to affirmatively answer one or more of these queries. We get caught up in the chaos of our lives and allow ourselves to become isolated. The more alone we feel, the more we sometimes believe we must bear the weight of the world on our shoulders.
Leadership is vital in all walks of life. Anyone who has to decide what he or she believes and then act on those beliefs is, in my opinion, a leader.
Leadership is not about having all the answers or being stoic. It is more often about being willing to formulate and ask the right questions, solicit advice and feedback, and listen carefully.
Try asking these questions. I think they will help you counteract isolation and make better decisions. It doesn't need to be so lonely at the top.
Robert Steven Kaplan is a Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School and co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy firm. He is the author of "What to Ask the Person in the Mirror", a book published by Harvard Business Press (August 2011).