26 Jun Are you lonely at the top?
In the conversations around organisational stress, very little is spoken about loneliness. For leaders, in particular, it’s a difficult subject to broach – understandably, the head of an organisation or department may not want to admit feeling lonely for fear of being seeing as vulnerable and weak. However leadership loneliness is not only very real, it can also be a contributing factor in workplace stress.
With so few leaders willing to openly discuss loneliness, I was heartened to see Sadiq Khan talking about his experience of it recently in the media. Referring to the challenges of Covid-19, the Mayor of London admitted that ‘being a leader is lonely… I’ve struggled’. He said there was no doubt that loneliness had affected his mental health and that there were days when he was ‘fragile’ and ‘a bit down’ and had felt unable to provide ‘proper leadership’.
Loneliness and leadership
It would be wonderful if Khan’s honesty encouraged other leaders to open up. There are certainly plenty of leaders who share similar feelings – half of CEOs experience loneliness at work, according to research by Harvard Business Review. In the study, 61% of those respondents, like Khan, admitted that loneliness had affected their performance.
There may not seem an obvious link between loneliness and performance but the correlation was highlighted in a 2014 article on stress in the International Journal of Leadership and Change that showed loneliness can affect confidence and self-esteem, lead to cognitive sluggishness and also impair mental health.
Loneliness doesn’t just impact leaders. The stress it causes may filter downwards through departments and teams and ultimately create a stressful environment for the whole organisation.
Understanding your emotions
So what can be done about loneliness?
Sadiq Khan has his own useful advice for leaders ‘Think about anybody in your peer group or somebody that you think is similar to you and ask questions. How are you coping? What sort of things are you doing? What’s your daily routine like?’ For expressing and exploring feelings in a more private and confidential space, leaders may find it beneficial to book a programme of executive coaching.
My approach is to start by recognising and paying attention to what you’re feeling, whether that’s loneliness, isolation, sluggishness or worry about being unable to provide proper leadership. The neuroscience I teach shows how feelings are made and why it’s so important to really listen to them so you can discover the message behind them. And there’s always a message!
That’s why before rushing to find a remedy to ‘make it better’, I encourage leaders to have a closer look first. I call it ‘a cup of tea’ approach – time to reflect on that feeling, to understand it and, yes, embrace it. Our feelings are our teachers. They will guide you towards the message and show you the most effective way forward.
Loneliness will no longer feel like a burden or something you have to cover up. Instead, you’ll be able to tune into as your own inner resource and navigate your way through it.
* To find out about my executive coaching and 5-step stress programme, call me on 07930 459337 or drop me a line.
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