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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

It may sometimes be a matter of not being able to find someone with sufficient knowledge to seek as a sounding board. I know of a senior executive charged with finding new business through the combination of new markets, new products and/or new customers segments. The issue he faced was that no one in the company knew exactly how to do that. Everything was riding on his shoulders. This created a problem where he could not seek counsel from anyone in his team and in his company. Nobody understood the issues he faced but everyone expected him to deliver on it. Not being able to talk to someone with sufficient knowledge further isolates the executive, making it even lonelier.

(5) Politics

Even within the senior leadership team, some things cannot be said for fear that this might be used against you in some backroom deal. The COO may be plotting a move against the CEO, the CMO may be trying to get the CTO to side with her so as to strengthen her position against the CFO. This may sound like a soap opera, but in my personal experience, I have seen this happen right before my eyes even in small companies with less than 100 staff. When egos, pride and ambition come together, there is no avoiding such power plays. This breeds partisanship and distrust, isolating members of a team that should really be cohesive. These lead to even greater loneliness at the top!