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  • Writer's picturePilo

How lonely is it up there?

In a series of articles, we will discuss about the shocking truth about the silent struggles of top Executives.

Feeling lonely at the top is one of the most common and yet counter-intuitive paradoxes of Executive Leadership. How can you feel lonely when everybody wants your attention? Your teams, your boss(es), your clients, your stakeholders, your life partner, your children… Everyone is craving for your attention. If you are in an executive leadership position, I sense you may even feel a tiny rush of anxiety reading these lines. The feeling of loneliness has nothing to do with the number of people you have around you. It is first and foremost a feeling and a social perception. They come from the story each leader feeling lonely will tell oneself: “I am the only one with a team of 3000 people and 3 billion revenue and I cannot talk to anybody about the issues I am facing”, “I am the only one responsible to face that decision today that could involve the end of my grand father’s company tomorrow”, “I will be the sole responsible in a court of law if this contract gets wrong”.

It is not surprising Executive Leaders reported “feeling lonely” being their number one challenge in a questionnaire we ran with top level Executives at the end of 2022. A study by Lieberman from 2003 demonstrated that feeling lonely has a similar response in the brain as someone being in physical pain. There are more consequences to that feeling… loneliness impacts your whole being and might have consequences such as: cognitive abilities, relationships with friends and family, health and, sometimes, addiction.

If you are in this situation, this represents a few challenges for you: there are a lot of expectations for you to perform … and the more you need to perform, the more lonely you may feel. The more lonely you feel, the more difficult it will be to perform: this is the downward vicious loop you might find yourself in. And, there is a way out!

One way to identify where you are is to take an assessment with the UCLA Loneliness Test: This simple test may help you identify and reflect on how lonely you really feel in your current situation. Your result will help you evaluate if you should seek for support.

Working with an Executive Coach may be another way to address the feeling of loneliness. There are a lot of assumptions about what an Executive Coach does or does not do with a client. Some people think an Executive Coach is a Consultant or Mentor “telling” their client how to improve their performance. They see Coaches in the business world as they see Coaches in the sports world. In reality, it’s quite the opposite… A coach will define goals with their clients upfront. Whatever the goals are, the coach will support their client. In my experience, these goals are often a mixture of business goals (behaviors hindering performance) and personal goals (relationships, health…).

Although the wheel of life is a well known tool, it is very useful to go back to it and see where you are in your life . This is a great tool to determine what could cause the feeling of loneliness and give you an opportunity to claim back where you want to be. Here is a tool made in house to help go through a wheel of life:

And there is much more that coaching can offer to help you with the feeling of loneliness:

  • Understand your feeling (self-awareness)

  • Reconnect yourself with your purpose and values

  • Explore different perspectives on a topic

  • Brainstorm with you

  • Define intent and drive accountability to support behavior changes

  • Review existing relationships to prioritize quality over quantity

Here is a real story about how a coaching session with an Executive went and how it was able to help. We decided to go for a walk in the countryside to provide us with fresh air and new perspectives. The topic was: “I feel like I don’t have any time to think… and when I do… I cannot share my ideas with people around me”. There was a strong feeling for that Executive to find a way to step back, reflect and share. The feeling of being constantly solicited was paradoxically increasing the feeling of loneliness. We walked and talked… and some themes emerged… speed vs impact, urgent vs important, now vs tomorrow, work vs family… At the end of the session, my client came up with clarity on his next big strategic move: taking full ownership on leading a new technology in his field. This led to a significant shift for his organization with a nice balance between growth and sustainability. Honestly, these moments are magic to witness in my coaching profession… and they are simple… a deep and powerful conversation with no judgment and full presence.

Some actions you can take to explore that topic…

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