7 Practices to Relieve Leadership Loneliness

Loneliness:  It has been said, “It is lonely at the top, but at least you eat better.”   For most of us, eating better is not enough.  Allender’s (2006) fourth leadership challenge is to deal correctly with “the deep sense of isolation and loneliness” that leaders feel.  If you have led, you have experienced loneliness.  But few leaders are consistently lonely for good reasons.[1]

Persistent loneliness kills:

    • People who have strong ties to family, friends or co-workers have a 50 percent lower risk of dying over a given period than those with fewer social connections.[2]
    • People who are lonely have a blood pressure 30 points higher than the ones who are in a relationship.[3]
    • Loneliness can be as bad as smoking and obesity, and lead to many other physical and emotional ills. [4]
    • Loneliness makes us age faster and affects our immune function. [5]
    • In the Alameda County study, a social scientist from Harvard monitored the lives of 7,000 people over a period of 9 years.  People who were more isolated were three times more probable of dying than people who had strong relational connections.  Even people with bad health habits (smoking, drinking in excess, bad eating habits, obesity, etc.) but who had friends lived longer than people who had healthy habits but lived isolated from community.  As Ortberg summarizes- it is better to eat Twinkies with friends that to eat broccoli alone![6]

Before you grab for the Twinkies, here are 7  practices to relieve leadership loneliness:

  1. Work in team.  Share the load.
  2. Involve your wife as a full partner, if married.  Terry is my battle partner and my first team.  Though we experienced seasons when the kids were small and she was at home, she was “with” me in the ministry. “If you want to go fast,” says an African proverb, “go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”  We chose to go together.
  3. Develop a board of advisors.  This can be informal or formal.  I enlisted professionals in areas of legal, accounting, HR, marketing, OPS, fund development and counselors who advised us in decisions and strategies.  They were very much part of our “team”.
  4. Be yourself; don’t hide or fake it. An ineffective default response to loneliness is often hiding.  When I hide hurt and insecurity, it only leads to feelings of more isolation.  I have to be intentional about being open with others on the team, and express “I need you.”  When I choose to be vulnerable with my struggles and sufferings, I allow others on the team to care for me.  If I am independent and self-sufficient, it builds walls that others cannot penetrate.
  5. Network with other leaders at your level. [7]  Be committed to building a healthy community around you, inside and outside of your organization.
  6. Build a culture of ownership.  If I am the only one who “owns” the vision, I shoulder the weight alone.  As my friend Eric Swanson used to coach me, “A crappy plan that everyone is committed to is better than great plan that only you are committed to.”
  7. Engage others in the process rather than spend energy trying to “align” them after I’ve come to my conclusions.

A couple caveats in conclusion:

  • Loneliness is not necessarily the same thing as being alone.  As an introvert, I actually need and enjoy time alone.  On the other hand, a popular person can feel lonely being around a crowd even when he has many “friends”.  True intimacy and feelings of relatedness are much more about the quality of your relationships than the quantity.[8]
  • There are times of legitimate loneliness.  In leadership we know more about the lives and struggles of those for whom we care.  Suffering to protect a confidence is a lonely feeling and puts the leader in the direct path of criticism.

What has helped you overcome loneliness in leadership?

Other titles in the series: Leadership Lessons along the Journey

[1] Allender, D. (2006). Leading with a limp: Turning your struggles into strengths.  Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press.

[6] Ortberg, J. (2002). The life you’ve always wanted: Spiritual disciplines for ordinary people.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

About Steve Morgan

I work in Global Leadership Development with Cru with my wife, Terry. We have been married 34 years and have 4 grown children. I have a Masters in Global Leadership together through Azusa Pacific University. I generally write about 5 “L’s: Living Well, Loving Deeply, Learning Continuously, Leading Courageously and Leaving a Legacy. I occasionally write about Laughing Loudly. Subscribe on the right side to receive an email whenever there is a new post. I invite you to leave your comments so we can dialogue on the various topics and learn from each other. If you are new to the site, you might start with looking at some of the top posts or doing a search on the right side bar for one of the 5 “L’s” that interest you. Or you can view the blog archives for topics. Photo Credit: sarahjoellephotography.com
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