It is lonely at the top – but it does not have to be


Last week (4th November 2016), South Korean President Park Geun-hye issued a contrite apology for allowing her close friend, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a Christian cult leader, and someone who does not hold office, to influence her decisions in policy matters, edit speeches, and even demand donations from companies to two foundations which Choi is alleged to have misappropriated. One of the key reasons for this is Park’s “loneliness” at the helm of the country.

Read: Tearful South Korean president bows before issuing grovelling apology

The phenomenon of being “lonely at the top” is well known and quite prevalent. One would expect that the president of a nation would have more than enough people around her to feel a vibrancy to keep loneliness at bay, but this case says otherwise. This is also typical of senior executives of organisations. Just look at the statistics gathered by Harvard Business Review in 2012:

Some of the prevailing reasons for this phenomenon are:

(1) They may be far removed from the “action”

Many senior executives are far away from the action, even if their decisions impact the ground. This distance distorts the messages that filter upwards, and sometimes, key information is withheld by middle managers who want to manage everything. This makes the top information-starved which can create the feeling of isolation.

(2) People may not understand the breadth and depth of the situation

Some issues are rather complex, and those around may not be able to fathom the breadth and depth of the situation. This makes it difficult for the leader to share much more than a sliver of information, which is as good as not sharing at all. This lack of an outlet causes greater stress, or in the case of Park, to seek refuge with someone outside the organisation. That unfortunately has many negative consequences, as we can see.

(3) Some matters cannot be shared with others

The higher up you go, the more privileged information you handle. Such information cannot be shared with anyone, and this makes it difficult get a different perspective, and perhaps to break a difficult cognitive deadlock. Similar to point number 2, where bottling up can lead to greater stress – and the concomitant impact on your health – and sharing it with someone outside your organisation is a definite breach of trust, the senior executive may be trapped in a corner where he is unable to move out of, further exacerbating the feeling of isolation.

(4) There may be a knowledge gap