Some years ago, I met this particular client for the first time, as I usually do, I asked; "So what do you want from coaching?" She replied, "It's lonely at the top." Initially, I was surprised at her phrase "It's lonely at the top" because she was the CEO of a complex business employing several thousand people. So of course, the thought went through my head "How is it she is lonely?" She went on to say "I want someone who'll listen to me as I explore various ideas and vision for the business. I don't need you to advise me or tell me this is a great idea or that is a dumb idea. I need a sounding board and someone who'll ask me questions to challenge my thinking and create a broader perspective. Is that something you do?"
It transpired she was the only woman on the Board of Directors and the lone woman in the C-Suite and felt she was exposed and didn't have anyone neutral to whom she could talk and explore her thoughts, vision and strategy. We had stimulating coaching relationship for several years, which was fascinating for me, and she had her sounding board. Over the course of our coaching relationship, she developed a valuable connection with her team, the board's respect and appreciation and ploughed her successful furrow.
I don't know where the phrase "Lonely at the Top" originated. I believe it came from the 1972 song by Randy Newman. However, it was probably coined earlier than that. No matter, whoever coined the phrase, there is no doubt what it means. When you are in a leadership position, you won't and can't have the friends you used to have.
However, my client above is just one example, and you don't need to be at the tippy top or a woman to experience a sense of isolation. People in leadership positions managers, supervisors even if you are leading a team of two, also experience it. When you move position, up, sideways or even down, temporary or not, relationships change, even if you feel they shouldn't. Just as when you retire and think your work friendships will stay the same, they don't, because you have left the world of your colleagues and moved to a different planet.
Managers and leaders have to make decisions, and their people won't always be happy. For instance, suppose your manager tells your team they have to work for the coming weekend due to an unforeseen event or in the current uncertain climate they need to take a 20% pay cut. How popular will either of those decisions be for the team? Of course, it depends on each individual because each person responds in their way, taking into account their commitments and expectations?
It's probable; not everyone will enjoy or be satisfied with the decisions you must make. Hopefully, they will respect them. Of course, that depends on how you present those decisions. If you are not firm, transparent and decisive, people may read this as being weak, or they'll feel confused, don't know what to do, and will not perform. Once that occurs, you will have a difficult time recovering from that perception. So be firm and don't waiver. Recognise, making a decision is vital; nothing is worse than no decision.
Ideally, when you are in a leadership position, your mindset is one of knowing yourself, you are performing well or not. With this mindset, feedback is just feedback, and you decide whether or not to take it on board depending on your criteria. If feedback is something you rely on to know how you are performing and be motivated, you may find senior leadership positions challenging.
Some leaders make rash decisions. Not recognising what precise information is needed, thus creating poor results. The reports affected by these decisions may get irritated, and you could lose credibility as a leader. Once that happens, you need to start clearly communicating more than you think you need to, so you begin regaining their trust.
One of the challenges is; there's always more information which is how you could start procrastinating. So you have to know where and when to draw a line in the sand and decide.
You are going to make mistakes; after all, you are merely human. When you believe you have all the necessary information, new facts may emerge to throw the original concept out of whack. There isn't much you can do about it, except accepting the landscape has changed, make alternative decisions, communicate and take action. Your confidence will be critical for your credibility when this occurs. However, when you exude confidence, your team will give you the respect you deserve and appreciate the pivot.
When you accept a leadership role, relish the responsibility that goes along with it. Appreciate people aren't going to like every choice you make and not every decision will be 'right'. Nonetheless, you are the one who is in charge of decision making. Make them with informed, well-founded confidence even if it is lonely at the top.
Reading time: 3 minutes 30 seconds
Julie Silfverberg has worked in the field of personal and professional development for more than 20 years. She works with a diverse and exciting group of people. Each with their own unique talents and potential.