Being a leader is lonely work. As an executive coach, I hear it from new leaders often, especially if they’re promoted from within. They say, “I was doing a good job as an individual contributor, but now I’m not sure what I should be doing after my promotion. I feel really alone.” They find themselves in a leadership role without much guidance and they aren’t sure how they can “skill up.” Every leader has to find their own way of doing the work of leadership. They have had a variety of bosses in their careers, but they aren’t sure who to emulate. They may feel like they aren’t providing real value to the organization any more. Some get sucked into a spiral of trying to do more and more work, while missing the real work of leading.
And it’s true, as a leader, you’re alone. You can’t express doubts to your boss because you don’t want them to doubt you. You can’t express your doubts to the people you manage because you don’t want them to know you aren’t sure of yourself. You’re careful about what to share at work, and you may be unsure about who to trust.
It’s lonely being a leader, and leadership is lonely work. However, there are ways you can ease the loneliness. Here are five simple ways you can help yourself overcome the loneliness of leadership:
1. Establish lifelines.
Find friends outside your industry and workplace to spend time with. You need a safe space to vent, and it will be better for you to have an outside perspective. For about a year, I was a leader in a very toxic workplace. One of my friends said, “You are really different lately. You seem really edgy and unhappy.” He was right, I was. It helped me to think about the situation differently and to make some different decisions. I was less lonely because he cared. Having friends helps.
2. Exchange answers for questions.
Give up on being a leader who knows all the answers. Give up on being an “all-knowing” dad leader and allow yourself to say, “I don’t know. How do you think you can find out?” Your staff will be amazed by your engaging leadership, and will be more empowered. You won’t be solving as many problems alone late at night by yourself. Your questions will allow people to work on problems together, and it will create a deeper sense of team for everyone to share the problem solving — including you.
3. Manage up.
Create allies with those in the organization above you. They believed in you when they promoted you, help them see you succeeding. Share positive triumphs regularly and ask for advice on challenges they might be able to help you with. This can’t be contrived — you have to genuinely respect them and their opinion. If you trust them, then they can become your allies, and you can become their confidante over time. Make sure to keep their secrets and you will start to become important to them. You’ll start to have a better understanding of what’s happening in the organization. Loneliness is worse if you’re out of the loop.
4. Be interesting.
Allow yourself to have interests outside of work. Have friends. Have dinner parties or cocktail parties. Experiment with hobbies. Take most of your vacation time (I know it can be hard). You will have to navigate your own workplace culture around vacations, but your life will be fuller, richer and more fulfilling if you have a life that’s deeply interesting outside the office. Leadership will feel less lonely if part of a larger context of fulfillment.
5. Practice extreme self-care.
Leadership is hard. Between impostor syndrome and emotional labor, the job itself can take its toll. Learning to replenish is important. When things get tough, reach for the vitamins and vegetables instead of the margaritas and martinis. When leaders are on the edge, they start to look a little rough. There’s visual evidence they aren’t quite pulling it off. When you start to feel that way, double down on some self-care — a massage, a good haircut, a manicure, or a personal trainer can help you feel like someone cares about you. It will show that you care for yourself.
As a coach and thought partner of top leaders, I know leadership is hard. Almost every leader I know earns their salary through giving deeply of themselves. Lean in, connect with others, engage, and find the real relationships all around you — your colleagues are probably a little lonely too. You can find a path around the loneliness.