Loneliness (At The Top)
A pervading sense of loneliness and isolation is the
price of success for many executives.
50% of American chief executives experienced feelings of
isolation and loneliness, according to a study of 83
CEOs released in January by RHR International.
Australian studies going back more than a decade found
the same problems.
And it's not a "soft" management issue: loneliness
impeded performance and productivity, the studies have
The 24-hour pressure on executives is part of the
problem, says American executive coach Dr Frumi Barr of
The Frumi Group, who has written a book about executive
"Of course it's lonely at the top," she says. "There's
no escape from work ... after a while it adds up, and
causes a great amount of stress."
For most first-time CEOs (72%), their leadership roles
were vastly different to their expectations, the study
found. RHR International chairman and chief executive
officer Thomas Saporito says: "Stress, pressure, and
loneliness all combine to create a job unlike any they
have previously had."
Company directors don't offer much support to their
leaders, according to Monash University academic
Margaret Lindorff. She conducted the most recent
Australian study of managerial loneliness (2001), and
found the best companies offered little more than
distraction as a method of emotional support.
When it comes to confiding in others and working through
issues, senior managers struggle to get what they need,
Lindorff says. "Going to their subordinates would make
them look incompetent, and they couldn't talk to their
superiors. Particularly for people very high up in a
company, there's no one they can talk to."
Other factors contribute to the feeling of loneliness. A
report by The Australia Institute (Mapping loneliness in
Australia, 2005) found men typically experience higher
levels of social isolation, especially those in their
30s and 40s. Lonely or not, many rely primarily on their
partner as a confidant, whereas women tend to have
several people they can turn to. For men who are single,
who live alone, or who aren't in a supportive marriage,
loneliness is common.
So executives turn to support at home. Author Frumi Barr
interviewed 40 CEOs for her book on loneliness and found
that supportive partnerships kept isolation at bay.
"The CEOs who are in wonderful marriages, where the
spouse understands the business, are fine," she says.
"But only two out of the 40 [interviewed] said that."
Loneliness impedes performance, the RHR study found.
About 60% of respondents say their feelings of isolation
impede their productivity. Scientific studies find
loneliness impedes sleep and raises blood pressure, is
linked to poor decision-making, a greater chance of
alcoholism and drug abuse, and decreased memory and
More people are talking about the issue than they were
10 years ago, Lindorff says, and some are taking action.
"There is a general increasing awareness of the need to
support managers," she says. "Sometimes people are sent
on management development courses, and one of the
outcomes is that people connect with others in similar
roles in other organisations they can talk to."
Team coaching and peer advisory groups, which discuss
common business concerns in a group setting, are
effective, she says.
It's a big source of business for the corporate coach,
who provide a professional confidant. "There's still an
ego issue; they don't go into the depth that they do
when they have a confidant," Barr says.
It can take several months for coaches to help
executives overcome their feelings. "Someone's been in
their business for a long time. It's not overnight that
they'll get some insight," she says.
Peer-based approaches include The Executive Connection,
which operates small chapters across Australia with an
experienced executive and business leader as
chairperson. The chairperson meets individually with
those in the group to provide coaching, but members can
also interact with each other in an informal group
Barr says peer groups can work hand in hand with
coaches. "It doesn't have to be solitary if you have the
right support," she says.
Feeling isolated? What to do:
trusted friend for help
helpline, such as Lifeline (13 11 14) or BeyondBlue
(1300 22 4636), to get some perspective
a peer support group, such as The Executive
work/life balance, especially more exercise
Or hire a
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