Aquila Capital Partners

Austin &
New York City

It’s lonely at the top—What business leaders can do about it

It’s crowded at the base, but lonely at the summit.

Mainstream culture regularly celebrates the ascent to the top ranks of business leadership, highlighting the success stories and lucrative rewards. But building a successful business with multiple organizational layers often means facing a reality many don’t discuss: the loneliness of leadership. 

Whether you’re launching a startup or steering a global enterprise, there’s a shared experience of isolation when you’re calling the shots, filled with unique challenges and weighty decisions.

Fortunately, there are ways to navigate this isolation, ensuring that leaders remain grounded, successful, and above all healthy.

Loneliness in leadership may be a common tale, but it doesn’t have to be the final narrative. 

The Reality of Leadership Loneliness

While the rewards of leadership and authority are obvious (and often glamorized), the accompanying isolation can be a hidden cost. Leaders frequently find themselves in situations where sharing their concerns or seeking advice from their immediate team is inappropriate. Not just because of potential confidentiality issues, but also due to the need to maintain an image of decisiveness, concerns about undermining their own authority, or the desire to protect their team from undue stress. CEOs of public firms, or those with significant institutional backing, find it especially tricky to confide even in board members. Given their fiduciary responsibility, casual comments or musings can sometimes lead to unintended panic and concerns among stakeholders.

When leaders bottle up their worries and anxieties, it’s a short path to difficult times. More than just organizational challenges, such isolation can even have a significant toll on mental and physical health. 

Howard Schultz, the visionary behind Starbucks, has spoken about the isolating experience of being at the helm of a massive enterprise. Even with all the success, there were moments he felt incredibly alone, unable to share his deepest concerns and challenges for fear of appearing weak or compromising the brand. Schultz’s experience is an example of how leadership, regardless of the scale, can be a lonely path. 

It’s crucial for leaders at every level to cultivate personal networks outside their organizations. Seek mentorship and advisory roles, make sure to have outlets to voice concerns, gain perspectives, and maintain a sense of balance.

Mentors to the rescue

Navigating the path of leadership can often feel like sailing through uncharted waters. A mentor, in such scenarios, becomes the lighthouse, guiding lost ships safely to the shore. 

I was fortunate enough to find a number of mentors when I was younger, and I still have relationships with most of them today. Their lasting impact and guidance has been invaluable and continues to influence my choices day to day. 

But what are mentors, truly? They’re people that possess years of experience, lessons already learned, and have an ability to share the wisdom that goes along with years in a role. And having just one mentor shouldn’t be the end goal, you should aim to have a few from diverse backgrounds –– each mentor has unique insight that contributes to your evolving leadership story. Mentors aren’t just about coffee chats and sporadic advice. Their time is precious, and if you prioritize precise, goal-oriented interactions, they’re more likely to invest their valuable time in you. By setting distinct objectives and conveying them clearly, you’ll unlock the real treasure of mentorship. This bond, built on mutual respect and strategic discussions, has the power to not only reshape careers, but guide, teach, and support you in your business success. 

Take Oprah Winfrey, for example, a media magnate whose journey has inspired millions. Throughout her illustrious career, she has often spoken about the influence of Maya Angelou. While not a conventional mentor in the business sense, Angelou provided Oprah with wisdom, perspective, and emotional grounding –– attributes vital for Oprah’s multifaceted success. This relationship emphasizes the mentorship mantra: it’s about mutual growth and respect.

Remember, most mentors have once been in your shoes, and they are eager to give back to you what they once received from their mentors. Your role? Be proactive, tap into your networks, and be relentless in your search. The right mentors are out there, be it a boss, family member, or industry peer –– your task is to find them and forge a timeless bond.

Community as a Path to Collective Growth

As a former CEO of a multibillion dollar global corporation, joining organizations such as YPO (Vistage and Tiger 21 are similar organizations) has been a game-changer. I found myself among individuals whose situations mirrored mine, forming a community of problem-solvers. The sheer value of these groups is monumental –– we worked together as peers, helping each other solve hard business cases, sharing experiences, and learning collectively. You truly realize that navigating leadership isn’t a solo expedition, but a journey best undertaken with allies. 

When you’re at the top of your industry, deep in the trenches of loneliness, the pathway to connection and growth can be found in forging communities. When Arianna Huffington made her exit from The Huffington Post, she founded Thrive Global to address pervasive burnout in the corporate world. But her zeal to reshape the work culture wasn’t created in solitude. She often spoke of the strength derived from communities, leadership forums, and collaborative platforms. It was this collective wisdom and shared camaraderie that not only offered solace, but also insights to navigate the challenges of entrepreneurship. Just like Huffington, every leader needs their community. 

Before the weight of leadership pulls you down, reach out. Dive into communities. Share, collaborate, and learn. Because in unity, there’s not just strength, but unparalleled growth.

Bottom Line

Navigating the peaks of leadership doesn’t mean you need to stand alone in the storm.

Creating or finding spaces in your life to unburden and connect is not an option, it’s a necessity. Holding onto challenges or concerns without an outlet can stifle your personal and professional growth, negatively impacting your well-being, including your physical and mental health, over time. 

Find mentorships that resonate with your goals, be active in communities, and always prioritize connections that encourage open conversations. 

Embrace the resources available –– you’re never truly alone.

Image by Vitaliy Paykov from Unsplash.