The Solitude of Ambition
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
It’s lonely at the top.
While there is truth in this cliché, isolation is much more subtle, especially in the business context. As a C-Suite leadership coach and former CEO, I have both witnessed and experienced this disorienting lack of connection. I call the condition “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 nor 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 change and cultures evolve. Our Peers become our direct reports. Prior conflicts undermine the current context and personal connections are re-evaluated. From an organizational standpoint, interactions readjust. Direct Reports may leave or be asked to leave.
Most importantly, people start 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 the TV series 30 Rock, Vice President Jack Donnaghy laments that, “In the bubble, no one tells you the truth.” 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.
Over time, a lack of trusted partners and truthful insights mean that reality can get distorted and leaders will:
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.
Often, I joke with clients that one of the benefits of being in charge is getting to choose the 18 hours a day that they work! But in reality, being on call is more like 24/7. Add into this equation constant travel and relocation that goes hand-in-hand with high-level work and you can see how disorientation can happen.
Operating at light-speed dealing with transactional and temporary issues leads to disconnection and disorientation. Executives simply lack the time to make deeper connections and to practice personal reflection.
Emotional disorientation is even more disconcerting. At the top, gradual erosion occurs of what matters most. 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 are operating 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.