It’s Lonely at the Top: How to Keep Your Sanity as a Leader

If you’re at the top, you can’t really get pally with all your colleagues, and it can in fact become quite lonely.

Pulling from personal experiences and a wealth of knowledge, Tony Dunk, Director at cda, provides CEO Today with some top tips on staying sane as a leader.

So there I was at Centre Parcs.

I had arrived at the auditorium early to get my notes in order. This was to be a keynote speech; I now had over 200 people in my sales organisation and a target of £600 million p.a. to achieve. This event was to bring together sales teams from three different parts of the business. It was the first time they had been together as a group, and for many the first time they had met their new leader – me.

Deep in thought I hadn’t noticed the delegates start to enter, then I heard a voice in my ear, ‘it’s lonely at the top isn’t it?’. My former boss, Bob, had appeared behind me, and he pointed out a big area of empty seats with me at the centre…people had filed in but they didn’t get too close to the new boss. As Bob left he said, ‘you’ll need to get used to this, it’ll often feel like you’re on your own…but you know where I am if you need me’.

In the years since I have often reflected on what Bob said. Leadership is often a lonely business but there are positive steps you can take to make it less so, and to keep your sanity.

Here are 5 ideas I have found particularly useful and which have continued to help sustain my sanity over my time as a leader.

  1. Get a mentor

    This is what Bob became for me. He had moved to a different part of the business, which was a help because he was divorced from the day to day stuff I was concerned with. Always available on the phone, email, or text, he had such a vast amount of experience about the way things work in business that often just to talk to him made the problem seem smaller.

    The knack is in choosing the right mentor, and then not abusing the privilege. After all leaders are expected to make their own decisions from time to time.

  2. Establish a peer network outside your business

    Leaders often have common problems to solve, being a leader doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from someone else’s experience. This should also be a mutually beneficial relationship, as you can also help others, building trust in your network.

    Today the technology available to us makes this even easier (using apps for video calls and group communication). Choose and nurture your network with positive intent and critical judgement.


  1. Establish a think tank inside your business

    As a leader you don’t have a monopoly of good ideas, especially when it comes to ‘blue sky’ thinking. Start an ideas group or think tank, a small group is best (5 or 6 is great), and fill it with the best talent from different areas of your business. Meet once a quarter, circulate big topics for discussion beforehand (e.g. Brexit, global warming, digitalisation) and devote half a day to really intense discussion about the impact on your business.

    Make sure you don’t let the ideas disappear into the ether and use this as an opportunity to spot future thought leaders.

  2. Share the load

    Many leaders are too cautious when it comes to sharing their leadership responsibilities. An opportunity to build strength into your business is to surround yourself with good people, then share the leadership load amongst them. It’s more than delegation, it is collaboration, coaching, and succession planning all in one.

    How confident are you about the abilities of the people who work for you. If you’re not, why is that?

  3. Get a coach

    Very different from a mentor, the coach should be in the business, and should have an understanding that permits him or her to ask the right questions. Coaches should have access to all the appropriate techniques, and know when to apply them. Some people say that coaches can simply come from outside and apply their skills…in my experience this is less useful, you often spend a lot of time explaining the business. I know that many will disagree with me, but it’s my personal preference that the coach should really understand the business for maximum value and effectiveness.

Lastly, here’s a half tip which concerns the leader’s social life – having a life outside your business where you can simply offload for no other reason than to ‘vent’. Have no expectation of answers or solutions from your friends, just empathy, mickey taking and getting some perspective helps a lot.

There is nothing radically new here, these are sensible checks and balances that all leaders need to help them lead effectively. I am convinced that part of the reason that leaders don’t build this support mechanism is because they think they shouldn’t need it.

Everybody needs help, and Meredith Belbin’s famous quote that ‘all of us is better than one of us’ may be a little out of context here, but I think it fits well. Once the leader is persuaded that they can benefit from such an infrastructure, the next question is ‘how do I do it’ – which is a much simpler problem to solve.

It can be lonely at the top, but it needn’t be that way all the time.

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