Feeling Lonely at the Top? You’re Not Alone

Most people assume those in high profile leadership positions would be socially gratified and least likely to feel lonely. Sadly, that’s not the case. You can have a big job, lead a team, be constantly surrounded by people and still be lonely. This to the detriment of your physical, mental, emotional health, not to mention, leadership performance.

Loneliness Chart

If you’re a company leader – at any level of leadership -- and you feel lonely, you’re not the only one. A major study recently conducted by Cigna, showed that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out, and that more than a quarter of Americans rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them. Two in five sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful, and around 20% rarely or never feel close to people. Finally, only around half of Americans report having meaningful in-person social interactions.

The implications of loneliness are not to be ignored.

According to a recent study by Brigham Young University and University of North Carolina, the quality and quantity of individuals' social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality. Though I haven’t seen the research to support it, from my experience I think these stats apply to company leaders at all levels of leadership and might even be higher for leaders. We at ExecuLiv have seen it in our own experiences, and our coaches often find themselves dealing with this issue with their clients.

It’s not hard to understand. While some corporate cultures are making progress, most don’t support transparency, and especially among its leadership. Yet the antidote to loneliness is transparency – the ability to be open, vulnerable and authentic. It’s in how much we are willing to share ourselves with others. For leaders, this can be a scary step since we’ve been taught to be stoic, impenetrable and tough. After all, how can one expect to gain the respect of the people they lead if they show that they are fallible?  

“perfection doesn't attract; authenticity attracts.”

As someone recently said to me, “perfection doesn’t attract; authenticity attracts”. How true. When we are open, vulnerable, transparent we give permission to others to be the same. And when we’re interacting from a place of authenticity, we make a deeper more meaningful connection. A social connection. A human connection. And in the process we dissolve feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Happy Workers

There is reason to be optimistic: Though slow to take full hold, authenticity is making a comeback in the leadership ranks. More and more research has shown that leaders who are open, available, transparent and who share their authentic selves – including the entire range of human emotions including vulnerability, fear, uncertainty, etc. - are actually MORE LIKELY to engender the respect and followship of their teams and colleagues.

Surely there is a time and place for stoicism, unbridled confidence and invulnerability as a leader. But only under trying circumstances and only sometimes.

Achieving full mental, emotional, physical and social health is a tall order, but a worthwhile one.

A good place to start is in our direct one-to-one interpersonal relationships. Specifically, being willing to share more of our authentic selves. As David M. Cordani, president and CEO of Cigna, sponsors of the Loneliness study says “people who are less lonely are more likely to have regular, meaningful, in-person interactions; are in good overall physical and mental health; have achieved balance in daily activities; and are employed and have good relationships with their coworkers.”

After all, what leader wouldn't want that?