Black woman staring out window
It’s lonely at the top
by Melanie Parish

Leadership is lonely. I have the privilege of coaching top leaders in organizations around the world in many industries and this loneliness is ubiquitous.

In good times, it feels like you are figuring it out and your work stays on an even keel. In difficult times, leaders are stressed out and find it difficult to be fulfilled in anything they do. Sometimes, it feels like you’ve pushed yourself to the professional edge and stayed there. Whether a leader is frustrated to a breaking point or is hitting it out of the park, leadership is challenging; leadership is difficult; leadership can be lonely. It is lonely work to lead others.

What Makes Leading So Lonely

I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about this question and trying to find an answer—both for myself and for my clients. Being a modern-day homecare leader inherently places you in the role of forging ahead. And by definition, this is an activity you will often do alone.

You may have a team that comes along with you, or you may have a boss who supports you as you walk ahead, but the work of leadership is to contemplate the metaphorical landscape and find your own path. Forging ahead can be exhaustive and taxing. It can sometimes feel impossible.

Often people have a sense of pride as individual contributors. Because they are good at what they do, those contributors are an obvious choice for promotion, and rightly so. But leaders may have a harder time defining their work, and it may sometimes feel like they shift from company hero to big brother or corporate overlord overnight.

A new leader might have been highly skilled at making their work visible as an independent contributor. Then they find themselves illuminating the work of their team. But there can be a feeling of invisibility as they gain their feet.

This is one of the reasons leadership (especially for new managers) is so difficult. This feeling of invisibility can leave leaders longing for the time when the work seemed so clear. Often, they are left with the compelling question, “Am I providing any real value to the organization?”

What You Can Do to Diminish the Loneliness

In my conversations with leaders, I find that acknowledging the challenges of leadership helps to reframe what they are feeling. New leaders need to first understand the work itself. Thinking strategically takes time and effort, but it doesn’t produce visible artifacts of accomplishment.

Developing direct reports is similar in producing value to the organization, but also doesn’t have the feeling of accomplishment and completion. I find there is a shift that leaders make from valuing their own work highly to valuing the work of their team more. This can be challenging from the place of new leadership.

Sometimes, leaders need to learn to manage up in order to help make themselves more visible to their own managers or bosses, both to help them overcome the feeling of invisibility, and to solidify their own path by confirming they are in alignment with other leaders. These discussions at all levels of the organization help to solidify the work and make the work of the leader visible in both directions.

What Else Leaders Should Be Thinking About

I am a huge believer in self-care being an important part of good leadership. Sometimes the stress of leadership has people reaching for a martini at the end of a long day. This is fine occasionally, but leadership is difficult and can be heavy. A strong regime of regular self-care, nutrition and exercise may be what will help you set yourself apart.

Everyone has to find the self-care plan for themselves that will leave them recharged and ready to give of themselves to further the goal and strategic intents of the organization. Here are a few ideas from various leaders over the years:

  • Massage or chiropractic
  • Pedicures or spa visits
  • Hiking or horseback riding
  • Cleaning or cooking
  • Yoga or gym workouts
  • Travel or conferences
  • Swimming or camping
  • Happy hours with friends

You won’t do all of these. Your leadership journey is your own. But make sure you make the time for regular and sustainable self-care in your life. Make it happen even when you are busy and stressed.

There is a Buddhist proverb that goes something like this: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day—unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”

The same is true for self-care. The busier you are, the more you need to make time for frequent self-care.

How You Can Make Your Leadership Feel Less Lonely

Finding good coaching and mentorship can help your career be less lonely. In many cases, new leaders think they need to enhance their performance. Often, they are top solo contributors who are also used to being top performers.

Having support can help them increase the quality of their work, but one of the biggest services a mentor or coach can provide leaders is to stand in the center of their lives with them and be all in for their journey. They can help assuage the feelings of loneliness by standing with them while they figure out their own leadership.

If you are feeling loneliness as a leader, hire a coach. It works. The return on investment for coaching is proven. It may be in a contract negotiation, a job shift or simply a new offering. Coaches or mentors are able to help leaders succeed and also to increase their success financially and professionally.

Being a leader can be incredibly rewarding, but it is intense and sometimes lonely work. Making sure you learn new ways to think about your leadership and shore up your own self-care will help you feel more successful as a leader. Go experiment.

Melanie Parish is a public speaker, podcast host, author and coach. An expert in problem solving, constraints management, operations and brand development, Parish has consulted for and coached organizations ranging from startup companies to the Fortune 50. She is the author of “The Experimental Leader: Be A New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators.” Follow her on Twitter