It’s lonely at the top.
While there is truth in this cliché, isolation is much more subtle, especially in the business world. As a C-Suite leadership coach and former CEO, I have witnessed and experienced this disorienting lack of connection, a condition I call “The Solitude of Ambition.”
Although some research suggests that successful executives may encounter solitude on an increased level, the subject is not something you’ll learn in a MBA class or read about in a text book. Instead, this version of solitude gradually occurs over time through personal career shifts.
Shifting Situations, Shifting Relationships
Moving up in an organization involves change. Our titles, scope and responsibilities are elevated. Geographies switch and cultures evolve. Our peers become our direct reports. Prior conflicts undermine current contexts and personal connections are re-evaluated. From an organizational standpoint, interactions readjust. Direct reports may leave or be asked to.
Most importantly, people begin to treat us differently and whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we may even start to interact differently with others, too. Over time, this can be as disorienting as looking at a familiar landscape through a kaleidoscope.
Precious Commodities: Trust, Truth and Time
Leaders often struggle to define whom within their organization—amongst the board, bosses, peers and direct reports—has their back. This uncertainty also applies to their external business relationships like service providers, suppliers and clients. Trust becomes a precious commodity that is difficult to earn, but easy to lose.
In an environment where everyone has a role, a position and a team to protect, an opinion and an agenda, many leaders are skeptical about unbiased truth. “In the bubble, no one tells you the truth,” Vice President Jack Donaghy laments in the TV series 30 Rock. Sounds about right.
Over time, a lack of trusted partners and truthful insights means that reality can get distorted. Leaders may:
Miss important details about themselves, their teams, the organization and the outside world
Lose clear thinking
Fail to remain humble
Over- or under-react to perceived threats
Senior executives not only exist, but thrive in, the rarified atmosphere of performance, competition and responsibility. Unsurprisingly, this translates to an inability to physically switch off. Mentally, the same intensity applies.
Schedules are managed. Tactical issues dominate. Personal reflection gets placed on the back burner.
I joke with clients that one of the benefits of being in charge is getting to choose the eighteen hours a day they work! But in reality, being on call is more like 24/7. Add into this equation the constant travel and relocation that goes hand-in-hand with high-level work, and it's easy to see how disorientation can happen.
Operating at light-speed to deal with transactional and temporary issues leads to disconnection and disorientation. Executives simply lack the space to make deeper connections and to practice personal reflection.
Emotional disorientation is even more disconcerting. At the top, gradual erosion about what matters most occurs. Family, friends, perspective, humor, our values, our inner compass—the things that keep us grounded—slowly disappear. Flying around the world, staying in upscale hotels, fine dining and making important decisions can seem desirable, but as Prince wrote in Glamorous Life, “Without love, it ain’t much.”
How to Manage Isolation
To manage the impact of "The Solitude of Ambition," I encourage my clients to reflect on the following themes:
A Sense of Self
Who are you?
What do you value?
What you stand for?
A Sense of Belonging
What personal & professional communities do you belong to?
Who are your friends in each?
Who has your back in each?
A Sense of Meaning
How do you understand the world?
What is important to you?
What do you want to learn?
A Sense of Purpose
Why is this work important to you?
When we operate at light-speed, reflection is no easy task. Making room for leadership starts with slowing down and creating the space. It means making time, developing trust and seeking the truth in order to be our fullest selves.
Although the path to the top naturally lends itself to isolation, understanding ourselves better, helps to ease its effects.
Jamie Ramsden is a certified executive leadership coach and founder of Adastra Consulting (www.adastraleadership.com). A former Chief Executive, Jamie has been coaching C-Suite and Senior executives around the world for over fifteen years.