When I talk to business leaders, I ask them why they think it’s important to have a business coach. Why do they continue to invest in that role? Why would they recommend a business coach to other leaders?
I don’t prompt them to say this, but inevitably they do: “It’s lonely at the top.”
It makes me think of a quote from the late author David Foster Wallace, who wrote extensively about clichés, their merits, and also about loneliness. He says, “clichés earned their status because they’re so obviously true.”
“Lonely at the top” is a cliché. It is heard so often in conversation that our minds skip right over it. We passively “get it”, but we may not consciously question what the speaker means. Wallace, famously self-conscious, went to bat for clichés. He encourages us not to skip over them or roll our eyes. He challenges us to question them, to peel back the layers, to ask why. Why has this become a cliché? In doing so, he says, we’ll uncover the obvious truth beneath them, and in turn, gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other.
So when a CEO, business owner, or entrepreneur tells me “it’s lonely at the top,” I try to remember the urgings of David Foster Wallace. Below, the top five obvious - and sometimes painful - truths buried beneath this business (and life!) cliché, and what understanding them tells us:
1. In a leadership position, you don’t have someone to talk to
Leading is stressful. Ready for a visual cliché? Google photos of “presidents before and after” their terms in office - that level of stressful.
That stress comes from facing high-impact decisions, but it also comes from the loneliness in making them. In our personal lives, we can discuss decisions with friends, family, and trusted mentors. But at work, CEOs, entrepreneurs, and even heads of departments all attest to feeling without “someone in (their) corner” when they are faced with tough decisions. It leads to intense feelings of pressure and vulnerability, which can have a backlash all their own (read #2 below).
2. Leaders feel they have to figure it out on their own
“I remember going into my office, closing the door, sitting there thinking about some really important decision, and feeling that it was just in my own head. All I had were my own instincts. And I felt pressure to figure it all out on my own.”
Apex North CEO and Coach Glen Dall feels his clients’ pain. While many “at the top” feel pressure to have all the answers, Glen and his coaching community urge leaders to push against that pressure. “If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room,” he often tells his CEO clients, challenging them to remove their armor and be vulnerable to their teams, asking for help from trusted advisors (like a coach) when they need it.
Often, the best answer to a business issue lies in the concentrated effort, creativity, and collective intelligence of multiple talents putting their heads together in a room - not one isolated leader banging their head against a wall. But facing that loneliness at the top, many CEOs aren’t able to see beyond their preconceived notions of being the one who has to “figure it all out.”
3. The CEO role is inherently exposed
While being at the head of the business may be lonely, leaders certainly aren’t alone, and definitely aren’t invisible. Quite the opposite. In the CEO role, there is nowhere to hide. A large part of the job is being a visible company ambassador. Additionally, the role of CEO or owner has an incredibly visible “scorecard,” unlike many other equally crucial roles in the company. While the whole team’s scorecards, metrics, and performance add up to the success or failure of the business, the CEO is the one ultimately responsible for that success or failure, and the one who will answer for either one at the end of the day.
4. There’s no “guidebook”
“I know my business better than anybody,” says Janice Stanford, CEO of FLYGIRL Creative and a member of the Apex North CEO Roundtable, “but do I know how to work on the things I’m not comfortable with - how to attain my personal goals for my business, and what that vision looks like three years from now, ten years from now? Or even get over the hurdle of how I communicate to my team better? No! That’s what a coach is for.”
While there is no shortage of books, whitepapers, and online resources for developing leadership skills, each CEO or owner role has unique demands and capabilities it asks of those fulfilling it. And often, the people who step into those roles get no formal training. Without a built-in mentor, many business leaders revert to truth #2, closing the barriers around themselves and increasing their own sense of loneliness “at the top.”
5. A truly great leader cannot and should not do “other people’s jobs”.
Coach Brad Giles submits that the biggest thing holding leaders back from achieving greatness is doing “Other People’s Jobs”. This shows up in numerous ways: a team member doesn’t achieve optimal results, so the leader steps in to do it instead; often, especially in young or mid-size organizations, there simply isn’t a role created to do the tasks that need to be done in order to reach the business goals. Therefore, the leader’s time is not spent leading - it’s spent somewhere else in the company, doubling or erasing others’ efforts.
This underlying truth may be the hardest pill to swallow about feeling “lonely at the top.” It’s supposed to be lonely up there. As the leader, if you’ve empowered the people on your team, recruited their highest passions and talents, and clearly outlined their responsibilities, you are free to do the thing you’re there to do: lead. And only you can do that.
So what does understanding these five underlying truths tell us? The isolation that comes with leadership is unavoidable and, in some ways, necessary for the job to be done effectively. But the backlash - building walls around oneself, misplacement of trust, doing Other People’s Jobs - is avoidable.
Apex North CEO Glen Dall’s first piece of advice is “find some peers who you can commiserate and be yourself with, because they’re in the same position.”
Secondly, he says of his own time leading a public company, “I wish I had been humble enough and smart enough to seek out a coach. At the time it seemed selfish to me, which I see now is naive, because the CEO is one of the company’s biggest assets.