Why many leaders are lonely and what to do about it

Find someone you can trust to communicate what you’re going through

David FullerOn a recent Sunday afternoon, I went over the handlebars of my bike, bent my front wheel and landed on my head.

My son Caleb wasn’t surprised – in fact, I’ve noticed he worries about me when we go riding. And I admit I’ve had my share of accidents on my mountain bike.

The thing about having a bike accident is you can tell people. I posted a picture on Facebook and had dozens of interactions within hours. People were asking if I was hurt, laughing at my stupidity and one person even told me my bike has a design flaw that causes one to go over the handlebars.

Unfortunately, leaders don’t seem to have a place to talk about our mistakes and get a similar response. Nobody wants to hear we made a hiring mistake and had to fire someone. That our cash flow is tight and we might not have enough money to pay our bills because we misjudged our income for the month.

When have we ever broadcast that our website failed – yes, the one we spent thousands of dollars and weeks of energy trying to perfect?

Who do we talk to when we feel embarrassed because we can’t get our organization to that place where we think it should be?

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Many leaders are lonely because we feel that:

The buck stops here. In the early years of running my companies, I felt I needed to hide the pain of the tough decisions of firing someone or deciding how to manage cash flow to ensure employees got paid.

As leaders we make tough decisions that affect our employees and feel that the buck stops with us. So often we think we can’t share our struggles because no one has as much at stake as we do.

We can’t take it home. I can see the eyes glaze over around the dinner table when I talk about my day at work. If you’re a business leader, you know what I’m talking about. Family and friends just don’t get it, they don’t understand the complexity of the problems and feel they don’t have anything to offer in terms of advice.

We feel shame. If we’re having difficulties in our organization, we sometimes feel we can’t talk about the issues with our peers because we feel ashamed that we aren’t succeeding in our task.

Rarely do we talk about our failures: those bad hires, the lack of income, the struggle to make ends meet, the marketing that isn’t working, or the new product or service launch that went sideways.

We want to give the impression that everything is always going great when it isn’t always.

We don’t know the answer. Related to the shame of failure is the embarrassment of not having the answer.  We think because we’re in the top seat that we need to know the answer to every question and the solution to every problem.

It takes a big leaders with smaller egos to admit their weaknesses.

I’ve made more mistakes in the office than I’ve made on bike trails. I’ve fallen on my face at work more than I’ve landed on my head in the bush. While I have scars and injuries from my daily misjudgments, like many leaders I have more internal scarring from errors in leadership decisions I’ve made leading my organizations. I bet the same goes for you.

To overcome our loneliness as leaders, we need to find a space where we can talk about our challenges and opportunities. Here are three ways you can share your burden:

  • join a peer support group for leaders and business owners;
  • create a safe space for your leadership team to work through challenges together;
  • find a business coach or mentor to talk to.

We should also be looking to build relationships with other leaders in similar positions who we can trust, people who can listen and offer constructive advice.

Leadership doesn’t need to be lonely but often we think we’re the only ones going through our particular challenges. We need to break through our shame and share our experiences to realize that we’re only human, just like every other leader.

It might not be a wise decision to post all your leadership mistakes on social media to get a response.

However, finding someone you can trust to communicate what you’re going through can be paramount to increasing your happiness and decreasing the loneliness at the top.

Dave Fuller, MBA, is an award-winning business coach and a partner in the firm Pivotleader Inc. Fallen one too many times? Email dave@pivotleader.com. For interview requests, click here.


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