Lonely at the Top? Not Necessarily.

by  Monica Diaz  |  Leadership Development

I still hear that a lot. How lonely it is at the top. How difficult it is to remain a character-based leader. How it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. Right? Well, as I said, not necessarily. Last night I was watching The Scent of a Woman for the umpteenth time. I like doing that. Some good movies or books reveal new details to me every single time I see them. This jewel is not the exception.

I noticed that in the scene where Al Pacino’s character defends Chris O’Donnel’s for his integrity, the audience busts into applause after he speaks. The silence of the rest of the session is broken by that sudden, spontaneous outburst. It’s like when audiences stand to applaud an artist on stage. You feel that pull inside you. You stand out of unity and awe at a breathtaking performance. No loneliness there. What seemed like a bad move, or a lonely path suddenly becomes a collective source of inspiration.

So, though loneliness is not to be feared, a better indicator that you are leading out of character might be the reaction you elicit from people when they realize what you’ve been up to. The only reason it is lonely at the top is because you have built your network as a pyramid, with you on the top and everyone else below. You have made that pyramid hard to climb and difficult to master. Is that really what is needed or does it reflect what you truly wanted out of leading?

Think community instead of power and you will be surrounded by supporters. Your biggest problem will be how to organize so that you are not swamped by requests or lose your way to ego. The need for community being evidenced by social media today is not a result of chance. It is human nature to want that. And it is great leadership to understand how a community can be built around taking a stand in the face of injustice or building a vision to improve quality of life, or including people in a worthy cause. It doesn’t even have to be grand. Just inviting and inclusive. It doesn’t have to be non-profit. There is a place in business for community, within organizations as well as in society at large.

Think service instead of advancement and you will go so much further! On the shoulders of great people. In the ranks of a moving crowd. Hand in hand, side by side. Build your network into a roaring crowd that is moving forward at a contagious pace. Change your vertical thinking to horizontal and see what happens. Don’t just take loneliness to be a necessary casualty. Do something. Build that pyramid top into a plateau, or better yet: move past it and step into the crowd below. There is no true leadership lost by being humble enough to do that.

Think standing for something instead of pushing for it and you will find your authority turns to wisdom. The kind that people want to heed. The brand of knowing that commands true respect and brings out the best in collaborators and foes alike. When you stand for a just cause or a clear vision, it shows. The more you hone that vision, the more it guides your decisions. The more you are decisive to stand for what you want to contribute to the world, the easier it will be to get compliance. So many people whine about incomplete delivery from their people. True leaders worry that they are on the right path because they know they will be followed. They raise their voice to make a point and need not scream or bully people into respecting that point.

The point is, when you make it to that top, make sure it is not a lonely place. And then, you might even feel cozy up there, your leadership stronger than ever. So what do you say? Is it lonely at the top?

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What People Are Saying

Artie Davis  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Love you list of paradigm shifts Monica. Such a sobering call to the “others” minds set.

Monica Diaz  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Thanks, Artie! Hope it sparks some new thinking…glad you checked in here!

Kerry Palmer  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for this reminder. I recently saw a leadership diagram that was a circle instead of the top-down models we usually see. The CEO is in the middle, and everyone surrounds that individual in “bands.” The CEO is the “A Ring,” and is surrounded by the B Ring, C Ring, etc. All working together for a common goal, and each being an important part of the total enterprise.

Catherine  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Kerry, thanks for sharing this. The ring/circle visual makes a lot of sense to me–much better than the typical pyramid!

Monica Diaz  |  21 Mar 2011  | 

Funny how are representations of things trap us into set perceptions! The organizational chart rarely represents how people operate, yet it is still the norm even in matrix organizations. I wonder what would happen if we got more creative on how we express visually the way we work together and what part each person plays in it?

Mike Henry  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for the great post Monica. I was in a conversation with a mentor this morning and this topic came up. I agree with you that much of the isolation of leadership is self-imposed. Many times leaders fail to include others and respect others and their own actions lead to isolation and loneliness.

But for many leaders, don’t you also agree there are lines across which only the leader can go. In other words, when the decisions are the most difficult, with the greatest consequences, leaders must do the hard things necessary for the vision and the organization. I wonder if the greater the consequences, the greater the potential isolation. Isn’t there a point where leaders must accept responsibility and accountability or cease to be the leader?

Monica Diaz  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Yes! That is why there should not be fear of loneliness…but leaders that have built a strong network of collaborators feel stronger to make those tough decisions. It is a leader’s way to step up and move forward. Great leaders make great decisions and know when to turn to others, or when to trust their own vision. Don’t you think? I believe when we speak of leadership we are not talking a set of skills but a way of being that encompasses a range of actions, all in the service of greater good, strong vision, real commitment to it.

Mark Oakes  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Good Post

I agree with the key points here. I would like to add one caution, however…

I think we need to be careful when we draw a correlaton between the organizational structures leaders choose and the loneliness that leaders experience. Authentic leaders care deeply for their companies, people and customers. As such, feelings of loneliness accrue when a leader must make tough decisions that affect any of those three. Leaders don’t delegate these tough decisions, are fully accountable for them and, as a result, stand alone in those situations. I have yet to speak with a CEO/President who cared deeply who didn’t feel lonely in these situations.


Monica Diaz  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

True, Mark! I agree wholeheartedly. But is that loneliness or empathy? When decisions affect others, it is exactly that care for others that makes the leader responsible and stay fully accountable. Nobody said it would be easy! Thanks for the caution and your comments here.

Shawn Murphy  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hello Monica! You make some very important points and remind us that leadership is rooted in community.

To pick up on Mark’s point, there are observations, ideas, and possible actions before a decision is made that CEOs/Presidents have very few people to turn to for input. I struggle with this as a President of Achieved Strategies. I can’t talk with some of my partners about some ideas or concerns as it’s not time for them to hear or discuss them. Timing does come in to play here. When I can’t YET talk to my partners about something, it is lonely. There are few available options.

In these situations, its my deep care for people and the company that lead me to not talk about what’s on my mind.

Monica Diaz  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Thanks, Shawn! I do appreciate what you say. And I am sure you have a healthy balance going on.

Peter E. Friedes  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

I agree with Mark Oakes caution. I ran a very horizontal worldwide consulting firm, with 15 direct reports to avoid the setting up of more layers. We were in the 100 best companies in America to work for, we were a partnership in structure, we were highly collaborative, and I had an enormous consensus from everyone, including the most recent hire, for what we were trying to achieve.
I was not lonely in the sense that I always had many people to talk with, get their thoughts, or reactions to possible alternative tactical or strategical decisions, with everyone being open about what they thought. But it was lonely for me in the sense that I knew what each person wanted and knew I was always disappointing or disagreeing with people. (Of course, they expected me to make some of these decisions and I knew I was doing my job to do so, but I would have been personally healthier by being more oblivious to these feelings.) Some traits that everyone liked about me (being so inclusive and listening well to their ideas) naturally come along with caring what they feel and say, which made it feel lonely when we made decisions.

Monica Diaz  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Hats off to leaders like you and Mark, Peter. The loneliness you describe is more about caring and knowing it is up to you to make decisions. Tough choices do come with the job, but when they are made in the way you two describe, the loneliness is not pervasive, but chosen. Thanks for weighing in.

corporate investigations  |  21 Mar 2011  |  Reply

Even in Business if you achive all the success in the world and if you dont have anyone to share with I still believe that you are lonely. thanks for the article

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