Overcoming the Loneliness of Leadership

Technology connects us, but changes the nature of our relationships. We have more "friends" than ever, but lack the bonding we yearn for. These problems are multiplied for leaders.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
--African Proverb

Who can you turn to when life gets difficult and things aren't going your way?

Over the past 20 years, Americans have faced a crisis of community. As Robert Putnam documented in Bowling Alone, we're spending less and less time with each other. Technology connects us, but changes the nature of our relationships. We have more "friends" than ever, but lack the bonding we yearn for.

These problems are multiplied for leaders. CEOs and senior executives say the biggest problem they face is lack of someone to talk to about their toughest challenges. Leaders know they are ultimately responsible, and the well-being of many rests in their hands. If they fail, many people will be harmed.

In the 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey half of all CEOs reported feeling lonely, and more than 60% believed it hindered their performance. As Thomas Saporito wrote, "Many CEOs are plagued by feelings of isolation." It can be difficult to talk with subordinates or their boards about their biggest problems and deepest fears. Friends outside the organization may not understand their challenges. Sharing their doubts openly may set off rumors.

The sad truth is that many leaders are abandoned in time of need. One day they may be riding high, and the next find themselves out of work. When that happens, many leaders have seen their "friends" disappear. As J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon once told me, "When I got fired at Citigroup in 1998, the only people there to support me were my family and my high school and college friends."

Many leaders try to fix problems themselves without reaching out for help. Without confidants to provide perspective in crises, it is very easy to make poor decisions or compound their problems. Yet this is when you most need to depend upon people with whom you have built trusting relationships over many years.

There is no instant cure for the loneliness of leadership because it requires time to create a strong support network. Your support team starts with one person with whom you can share everything - your spouse, best friend or a therapist. For me that person is my wife Penny, who has been an invaluable counselor for 46 years.

Next come your mentors, those wise people with whom you consult when facing challenges. I have been blessed with many mentors over the years. Several of them have passed away, so my mentors have continued to evolve. These days I look to my colleagues at Harvard for advice. I am also fortunate to have two younger mentors, who educate me about the Millennial generation, social media, and understanding young leaders.

In particular, it is important to have regular support group you confide in - a True North Group. A support group allows you see yourself more clearly, get honest feedback, and gain perspective. In preparing for the unexpected in life, leadership expert Warren Bennis wrote, "Have some group that will tell you the truth and to whom you can tell the truth. Make sure there's some way of understanding reality beyond what you know yourself."

I am fortunate to have an 8-person men's group that has met weekly for 40 years, and a couples group that has met monthly and traveled together regularly for 32 years. These groups have been invaluable through all the challenges and joys that life brings. Similarly, courses for more than 6,000 participants at Harvard Business School have formed 6-8 support groups to engage in very personal discussions about their leadership and their lives, using Discover Your True North as their guide.

Your support group helps you develop a feeling of belonging. As Brene Brown put it, "A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, be loved, and belong." At various times your support group will function as nurturer, grounding rod, truth teller, and mirror. At other times the group functions as challenger or inspirer. When people are wracked with self-doubts, it helps build their courage and ability to cope.

Emotionally, having a strong support network changes how you feel. Mayo Clinic recently reported that deep personal connections decrease stress, anxiety, and the risk of depression. More surprisingly, having close relationships can change your fundamental biology. In 2006, the Journal of Behavioral medicine reported that social support is linked to lower rates of mortality and immune system improvements.

We do not succeed on our own. Authentic leaders need to build strong support teams for guidance in times of uncertainty, support in difficulty, and celebration about success.

Author's Note: Ideas in this article are drawn from chapter 7 of Discover Your True North.

Go To Homepage