Lonely at the Top? How to reconnect and become the leader your team really needs

The scene from ‘The Incredibles’ where Elastigirl shouts at Mr Incredible ‘This is Not about You!’ has been played out in our house in homage to our favourite action movie. But it's in the workplace this message probably needs to be delivered the most. The traditional 'command and control' approach might be outdated, but it's alive and well in many organisations and with an unhealthy focus on the leader as the superhero it's destructive for both leader and team.

‘It’s lonely at the top’ is a hackneyed saying that seems to be backed up by research, with  Harvard Business Review reporting 50% of CEOs feel lonely at work, and of this group, 61% believe this feeling of loneliness hinders their performance. When you look at first-time CEOs, the numbers climb to 70% in both categories. Whilst this research is a few years old it still resonates - so why is this?

I think the reason is two fold:

  • Work can take over. In many organisations the higher up you go, the more the pressure there is to be ‘always on’. And this leads to punishing work hours, lost ‘down time’ and an absence of fun. Work can invade every aspect of life with soul-crushing consequences.


  • Beware the echo chamber. The more senior you get the less likely you are to receive genuine, unabridged, helpful feedback, especially from your team. Many senior-level executives don’t get much input on their performance, the opportunity to bounce around ideas, to hear opposing points of view, or even the luxury of thinking out loud.

Yes it can be a lonely place, and if these two forces are in play you may find yourself in the role of an unhappy Mr Incredible where you focus needs to shift. So how can you avoid the trap of isolation as you ascend the corporate ladder? Here’s some advice Elastigirl might offer Mr Incredible to get him out of his own head and onto a more successful path:

Nevermind your IQ it's your EQ muscle that needs exercising. It’s emotional intelligence that makes a good leader, great. Try thinking of EQ in 2 ways: How I manage myself in relation to Me and How I manage myself in relation to Others

Let go of being right and get curious about what right is.  You don’t and shouldn’t know everything, your role is draw out the mastery of your team members and to support them in becoming the experts.

Actively seek feedback. Ask your team members specific questions such as 'what’s one thing I’m doing, or failing to do that is holding me back?' or ‘what’s one thing I could do better to support the success of the team’? By being specific you’re much more likely to get meaningful input.

Reconnect with your team, your stakeholders and your customers. Take the time to really get to know the people in your work family. Understand what drives them, what matters most to them and what they aspire to. This is where the real value of work lies, and the improved connection and trust you foster will reflect in performance.

Role model the work, personal time flow you want your team to enjoy. Never doubt that you set the standard for what it takes to be successful in your team.  I'm sure you would berate a friend if they continuously sacrificed personal time for work and to the detriment of their well being and relationships. Take the advice you would offer your best friend and you'll start to role model the right behaviour for others.

Find a good coach to act as your thinking partner. Good coaches accelerate growth and personal development because they provide highly specific and tailored input both in terms of leadership and business strategy. Great coaches act as a catalyst to drive the change you want to see most in your career and your personal life. Find someone in your life you trust to act as your coach.

Whilst it's certainly easier to avoid these pitfalls rather than fight to win back connection that is failing, I've found these steps work across the spectrum of leadership. Whether you're established at the top or starting out in your career, it's never either too early or too late to build these healthy habits. I'd love to hear your feedback and other points of view in the comments.

For the great ‘This is not about you’ clip from the Incredibles: See YouTube

Want to delve deeper? Check out these resources:

Servant Leadership: the phrase “servant leadership” was coined by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. In his original essay on the topic, Greenleaf said: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.” More onServant Leadership.

Humble Leadership: Without open and trusting communications, organizations will continue to face the productivity and quality problems that result from reward systems that emphasize individual competition and “climbing the corporate ladder”. In their book Humble Leadership Authors Edgar Schein and Peter Schein recognize this reality and call for leadership that relies on relationship building, complex group work, diverse workforces, and cultures in which everyone feels psychologically safe.


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