World Mental Health Day seems like a good time to reflect on an adage I hear many CEO’s, presidents and senior leaders repeat – that it’s ‘lonely at the top’.
I have normally brushed it off, frequently believing it to be an example of senior leaders trying to make their role and responsibility even more mysterious. Sometimes I’ve dismissed it as a way of building the CEO or President’s sense of self-importance, by painting a picture of a unique level of responsibility at the highest echelon of a hierarchical structure. But recently in a passing conversation with a loved one outside the workplace, something caught my attention and the saying came back to me.
The psychology of leadership is fragile. We constantly find ourselves in positions where we need to talk ourselves into holding our nerve. In the world of students’ unions specifically, we are constantly caught in a storm of criticism and we have to focus really, really hard on what we believe is ‘right’. We then try to balance this against the various voices of our membership and stakeholders that scream to us to move in a different direction. To add to the sense of confusion, there is no clarity or consistency in the voices and noise that shout at us. The one constant in all of this is the leader’s determination to do what they believe to be right – for the organisation, for its members, for its employees and for the wider context and public good.
When we think about the competing voices and the sheer noise of decision making, we can use language that echoes some of the symptoms of mental health problems. It was this close synergy that struck me recently.
As I listened to a very close friend tell me about their fragile health, they described in detail the voices they hear and how the voices confuse their decision making. When the voices are loudest, it clouds their personal judgement and detracts from the quality of decision making. I was deeply struck by the alignment of this description to one that I have used to describe leadership.
And here in lies the conflict. We can’t resolve friends’ health concerns by adding another opinionated voice to those they can hear in their head. We won’t provide clarity for that vulnerable friend by shouting louder and by asserting ourselves more. The best way we can help friends seek personal clarity is by trying to create calm for them – by creating a space for them where they feel relaxed, safe and able to consider their own voice.
Perhaps the same solution is necessary for leadership. Maybe the goal should be to create a space where leaders can best navigate the various constituents views, opinions, ideas and needs and consider these carefully rather than try to respond to the voice that shouts loudest. The solution to senior loneliness at the top is not creating more voices – it’s to create better quality reflection space to take in the environment and make great judgements about how to navigate it.
It’s this that makes me realise what people mean when they say its lonely at the top. There are too many voices at times, and they can make it difficult to hear our own voices – perhaps that is the risk of loneliness which we should try to better understand.