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 the 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.

  • What we are seeing in many businesses is the remoteness of department leaders, even CEOs. Here are several reasons for this behavior:
    • As new manager-leaders, they are trying to become comfortable with different routines and responsibilities. Until they feel grounded, they feel vulnerable and unprotected. Consequently, you see these leaders separate themselves from their team members, as well as other internal champions that could mentor them.
    • Some find that the tasks they used to perform without conscious thought now takes them out of their comfort zone. They have been used to an individual contributor role and had full control of their schedule. Even though they wanted to move into a leadership position, they find they can’t play it “safe”. Others, especially their direct boss, is looking at them for effective decision making.
    • Or for some, they fear being misunderstood. They have been well liked by co-workers, but now feel their authority is questioned at every decision. They know they have sound strategies for the next company goal but may not be proficient in communicating those strategies. Hence, they are perceived as know-it-alls and are left alone.

When you think you are leading in isolation, ask yourself:

  • What measurements will you put in place to quantify separation or exile?
  • What mood do you, the leader, bring to progress meetings, general optimism, stringency, sarcasm, or gloom? How will this mood affect the probability of success with any team?
Don’t Lead in Isolation