Coaching Perspectives – It’s Lonely at the Top

Jun 4, 2024

Claudine Menashe-Jones is an executive coach and leadership team facilitator with more than two decades of global strategy and delivery experience, and particular expertise in public sector reform. Claudine has her own consultancy and is one of a number of highly skilled coaches who work with senior leaders on Future Vision, our flagship leadership development programme.  Over the years, many Future Vision participants have told us about the value of the peer support network that the programme helps them to build, and the importance of maintaining that when they return to the workplace. In this blog, Claudine describes the lonely reality of many senior leaders and suggests ways to build the connections which are vital for leaders’ resilience.

It was one of those fun-filled performance calibrations. Everyone was going into bat for their people, making the case for high ratings and bonuses and looking to reward their hard-working teams after a tough year. I was the same: sharing just enough on areas for improvement to imply impartiality but not so much that it could be used against that person in the final tie break. Top spots were limited in our ‘guided distribution’ of performance ranking. It was every leader for themselves.

Unsurprising then that one of my colleagues – a friend of many years and someone I like, trust and respect – turned on me. “So-and-so didn’t do as well as she could have on that major project… she needs to improve her stakeholder management… I’m not sure she deserves that star rating.” I steeled myself. Luckily in this instance I knew the detail of the work and could hit back with strong evidence of what had been done and kill the “feedback”. That play was over. No goal.

Sound familiar? This isn’t a piece about the dangers of some performance management systems (I’ll save that for another day). It’s about one of the many structures and incentives in organisational life that mitigate against genuine collaboration and collective leadership and how these can leave you feeling pretty lonely at the top.

As we get more senior our peer relationships become some of the trickiest to navigate. Just as we move into positions where we’re supposed to put a bit more distance between ourselves and the people we manage, we also find ourselves isolated from or in competition with those around us. So where do we go for support? And for truthful, open-hearted conversations? For the connection and relationships that we need for resilience – not just to survive but to thrive?

Here are some suggestions to consider if you notice that you’re feeling lonely in your leadership role:

🔒 Don’t draw back too much from the people you manage. Yes, there will be new boundaries – you may be the person giving tough news tomorrow so you can’t fully let your guard down today. But remember that your people want and need to see that you’re realand that openness creates the environment that teams need to perform at their best.

💃Find places to be you. Keeping even a bit of that guard up gets tiring, so try to find one or two work relationships where you can be more open. Be ready for this to exist in unexpected places. Invest your time and attention – we all have one of those friendships that endures no matter how much we neglect it, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. Try being in proper contact with a ‘real me’ friend every two weeks.

🚪Invite people in. We all have our blind spots and it can powerful to open up to your team or colleagues about yours. Ask them for help with noticing when you’re slipping into behaviour you want to change. You can make this safer by focusing on the future: I want to get better at this, what suggestions do you have?

🌍Build new networks. Evidence suggests that just knowing that others are facing the same challenges can increase our resilience and sense of self-efficacy. Seek out new connections beyond your usual sphere – maybe look for people in similar roles outside of your organisation – and generate opportunities to share experiences.

🧠Create thinking time. Set aside time each month, week, or even each day, that is dedicated to uninterrupted reflection. You might do this alone or with someone who you can trust to really listen – a coach, colleague, friend or partner who asks questions that deepen your thinking and who pays attention without trying to ‘fix’ things for you.

Have you ever felt lonely in leadership? What helped?


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