In a company retreat last quarter, we heard the lament of three newly promoted leaders that it truly is ‘lonely at the top’. All three had been with this biotech startup since the beginning of the company; and, looked forward to the day when they were in positions of influence. Now that the time had arrived, one of them said, “Outside of team meetings, you know what I hear in my office? Crickets. Unless I actively walk out among the cubicles for conversation, I feel like I’m in exile. I didn’t think leadership would be so isolating.”

Even Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, stated in an interview with The Washington Post, “My job can be lonely. I’m not looking for any sympathy. CEOs don’t need any sympathy. I’m still happy, even on the days when the job seems isolated from rest of the world.” This type of situation exists not only in biotech, but in many of the hardware and software engineering companies, as well as, customer service, retail giants, and power energy suppliers. Why does this exist?

Let’s identify the separation between isolation and solitude. Isolation is the occurrence of being physically or emotionally separated from other people. Solitude is different in that it is usually obtained by choice. Often you will hear of folks retreating from cell phone or technology use to rejuvenate themselves or think through an approaching personal or professional decision.

Following is not the complete program we developed, but are some of the strategies we designed for them:
• Acknowledge when they are feeling ‘burnt out’. Identify when internal energies are low, and they are feeling high emotional stress. Find time to talk with mentors and peers about how they had originally arrived into the company. Identify that they still have strong foundational values that are separate from their job performance. Remind each other to not surrender to conformity with the Aristotelian logic, stating that people are meant to be conditioned and written upon like blank chalkboards.
• Effective leaders leave the vacuum of their offices by circulating among different departments. They can exchange best practices, helping improve working techniques. And, they shouldn’t appear at the same time every day or every week. Consequently, they won’t see the old predictable routines to problem solving. ‘Walk about’ leaders let others be brilliant too.
• Leaders can conduct listening sessions, where they talk with lower-level teams (without their bosses being present) about corporate conditions, customer transactions; and, how to employ new strategies. They also can conduct town halls, where employees ask questions and engage in meaningful conversations. By creating various listening events leaders can use un-sifted information to influence their decision making.
• Flexibility of leaders to be receptive in analyzing the exact situations their teams are facing is paramount. They do not become angry about the circumstances now but use their positive presence to motivate and revitalize their teams to do the impossible. Frequently, it is the leader that presents the team’s strategies to finance meetings or review boards explaining how they will overcome obstacles; and, make the case for more finances or resources. That leader is the champion of how to coordinate company tradeoffs and timelines.

Successful Leaders Don’t Lead in Isolation