Being a successful executive and reaching the top of organizations is an attractive goal for many people in corporate jobs. In our collective imaginary senior leadership positions are super-powerful and glamourous. But what do we really know about these senior level positions? Surprised by the scarcity of evidence available, for my MSc dissertation I decided to conduct a qualitative study to explore senior leaders’ experiences in their role.
I not only found that the popular saying ‘lonely at the top’ seems to be true, but I also identified two unique conflicts that senior managers face, and four effective strategies to cope with the pressures of senior roles. Here I share some useful advice for everyone interested in the challenges of leadership positions, especially at the C-level.
Leaders have often been portrayed as heroes. Many studies subscribe to ‘overly heroic’ and ‘romanticized’ accounts that exaggerate the power and impact of leaders. This bias towards heroic leadership seems to be especially pervasive in relation to the top level positions, which are distant enough to be surrounded by a magical aura.
But what we often forget is that leaders are not super-heroes. They are people with the same fundamental personal and social needs as everyone else. The ‘need to belong’ has been systematically identified as the most powerful and universal human drive. Satisfying this need has important positive effects on physical and psychological health and well-being. However, the popular saying ‘lonely at the top’ suggests that senior executives may have a hard time belonging, given that they are actually isolated in the organizational structure.
Senior managers usually don’t have (or have very few) peers and are generally aloof from the workers: the duties of the role seem to impose a necessary social distance to project prestige and influence in the organization. They usually divide their attention among a large number of employees, and as a result, they are not close to any individual employee. In addition, they are typically located on the higher floors of corporate headquarters in the least accessible and most extravagantly furnished areas of the building. In sum, there are visible and invisible barriers that set senior leaders and employees apart.
Moreover, senior leaders usually have very busy schedules that not only dramatically reduce their available time, but also reduce their energy levels. In my study, senior leaders reported being exhausted by the important responsibilities of the role, the diversity of their functions, and the intensity of playing organizational politics. As a consequence, their personal life usually suffers from fewer hours at home, restricted vacations, and limited energy available to interact with their family and friends. As a result, senior managers are lonelier both at work and at home.
But everything is not lost for senior leaders. My study found that keeping a balance in two key areas of conflict can help them in reducing their feeling of loneliness. The first conflict is internal, I named it “Role vs. Person”. Senior managers experience an interplay between their natural way of being and the adjustments needed to perform their role. For those who are unable to be themselves and feel that they have to fake in order to fulfill the role tend to feel lonelier in the position. On the other hand, senior leaders that are able to maintain and express a sense of self beyond the role can prevent or minimize the feeling of loneliness.
The second conflict is about relationships, I call it “Distance vs. Closeness”. It is about how to balance the necessary distance to perform the senior role effectively, and at the same time be close enough to have an important impact on followers. It seems that in order to reduce loneliness, senior managers have to do an intentional effort to keep connected to the bottom, overcoming the physical and psychological distances –in rank, authority, power and status- between them and employees.
My study also identified four coping strategies to deal with loneliness in senior level positions. These strategies should be an instrument for every executive in order to stay healthy and productive in their positions.
- Mental and physical disconnection: Senior managers have to be able to effectively disconnect from work in order to cope with stress. This disconnection involves a concrete aspect, such as setting clear priorities and a precise schedule, and also involves a mental disconnection by trusting that the teams involved will do the work.
- Healthy lifestyle: This includes good eating and sleeping habits, practicing sports and getting medical help for physical and mental problems when necessary.
- Support from one’s network: Although the sources of social support in these positions are relatively scarce –senior managers are usually seen as support providers rather than recipients-, the most effective source of social support identified were friends and external peers, such as former colleagues or classmates. As such, being able to maintain meaningful personal connections across the lifespan seems to be key to career success.
- Influencing others and fulfilling personal passion: The last strategy is being able to live one’s passion and influence others, inside and outside the work environment. Senior managers referred to how much they enjoy leading people and leaving a mark on others. This is a very important strategy not only because positively impacting others is personally satisfying, but also because it may reduce the pressures of their own role. For instance, senior leaders describe teaching as a healing activity. By doing so, they can share their personal stories with others with no negative consequences. Sharing personal failures as lessons for others help senior managers to make sense of their experiences and capitalize failure.
What this study suggests is that a senior management position is not a synonymous with supremacy or glamour. On the contrary, power at the top echelons can actually be harmful for senior leaders, making them lonelier. In order to stay healthy and be effective in the role, senior leaders have to make a conscious effort to keep a balance in their relationships and in themselves. The ‘loneliness at the top’ can be reduced if senior managers feel close enough to their followers to exert the desired influence on them, and if they also feel true to themselves.
Applying the four strategies I have identified may be the key to personal and organizational effectiveness in senior leadership roles.
 Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological bulletin, 117(3), 497.