From Brian Chesky and Tim Cook to the founder of Toms Shoes, there’s a lot of loneliness at the top. Here’s why it’s important and how to feel more connected

While success has obvious advantages, it does not exempt you from the loneliness epidemic. We romanticize the rush to the top, but there’s an unspoken struggle many business leaders face when the view isn’t accompanied by feelings of connection and belonging. A 2022 Deloitte survey found that a third of senior management is lonely. Researchers estimate that a large majority (70%) of executives consider leaving their jobs in part due to feelings of loneliness and poor well-being.

“CEOs can be constantly surrounded by people and still experience loneliness,” Ryan Jenkins, author of Connectable: How leaders can move teams from siled to all-insays Fortune in an email interview. After all, the higher you climb the corporate ladder, the more responsibility and stress falls on your shoulders to make decisions as an individual and not as a team.

Even CEOs of some of the most prestigious companies admit that holding the top job is an isolating experience. The founder of the renowned buy-one-give-one Toms shoe company, Blake Mycoskie, battled depression and loneliness amidst his company’s huge successes. Apple’s Tim Cook said that being CEO is a “lonely job,” and Airbnb’s Brian Chesky often said that his promotion only perpetuated his loneliness.

“I started leading from the front, at the top of the mountain, but the higher you get to the top, the less people there are with you,” Chesky told Jay Shetty during an episode of By the way last year. “No one ever told me how lonely I would be.”

Loneliness in senior management is not a new phenomenon. in a 2012 Fortune In an interview, Thomas Saporito, former president and CEO of RHR International, said: “The idea that you are lonely at the top is not just a hackneyed phrase. I’ve been at this for over 30 years and have spoken to over 200 CEOs; There are very few who, in the privacy of our discussions, did not talk about loneliness.”

Experts say addressing loneliness at the top can have profound impacts: improving people’s physical and mental health and strengthening the well-being and engagement of employees who look to their leaders for guidance.

How to combat loneliness at work

See loneliness as a ‘sign’

Leaders often avoid addressing their feelings of doubt and uncertainty, which can catalyze their loneliness.

“When people face a problem with many unknowns, they often retreat, isolating themselves rather than seeking the advice they need,” says Carter Cast, former CEO of Walmart.com, quoted in Jenkins’ book. “People get scared and back away. The loneliest I’ve ever been was when I was managing on a large scale and I just didn’t know if I was doing it right. “I didn’t know who I could talk to.”

But if a leader is feeling lonely, experts recommend sharing their experience (particularly their challenges at work) with a partner, mentor or professional.

“Loneliness is not shameful; it’s a sign,” says Jenkins, who works to create innovative ways to improve employee connection and engagement, including practicing emotional vulnerability. “CEOs should not be ashamed of loneliness, but rather see it as an innate reminder that their influential presence matters to others.”

Pivot from manager to leader

While widespread loneliness at the top may be due to fear and uncertainty about business decisions, it may also be due to not knowing how to lead those who look up to you. Nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive leadership training or advice from people outside their organization, according to a 2013 Stanford survey; Even before reaching senior management, new managers rarely receive training on how to be leaders.

“New managers don’t realize what they’re about to take on,” says Dr. Rich Safeer, chief medical director of employee health and wellness at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Fortune. “Most companies do not prepare new managers in advance.” Only 33% of managers feel able to support their employees’ mental health, according to a survey published this summer by Spring Health. And yet, research suggests that a boss may play a bigger role in employees’ mental health than a therapist.

When leaders see their teams holistically, they prioritize connection, combat their own loneliness, and help others feel a sense of community.

While leadership training is crucial, Safeer says leaders can also support their employees by creating space to get to know their teams. They can organize office hours to be accessible and show concern for people’s lives inside and outside of work. After all, more and more people find people-centered leaders supportive and relatable.

“Leaders must begin to improve their relationship with those they lead,” Safeer says, including being more transparent about their triumphs and challenges. “They need to be better listeners. They need to be more vulnerable and share what their challenges are. “They need to show more appreciation.”

Men, in particular, face stereotypical conditioning around emotional vulnerability. However, many executives who attended men-only retreats, for example, reported feeling connected to others when they shared their feelings and talked about their lives beyond their successes.

“People aren’t used to seeing leaders open up boldly, and I think it’s just a breath of fresh air,” Craig White, founder of Men Without Masks, a U.K.-based retreat, previously said. Fortune. “As I’ve seen it, it gives permission to everyone within the organization to potentially do the same thing.”

Reconnect with friends out of work

Like everyone, corporate leaders need space to be vulnerable and have the support of their friends. “A lot of my life was about being successful… I thought that would make people love me,” Chesky tells Shetty on the podcast.

Former President Barack Obama, Chesky’s longtime mentor, helped him realize the driving force behind his dissatisfaction beyond office.

“I think you’re feeling a little lonely and probably need to renew your friendships,” Chesky recalls Obama telling him in a 2021 conversation. Chesky says the former president was able to maintain 10 to 15 relationships, many of which he had a connection with before assume the position.

“They kept it strong and grounded, and your roots come from your past, and your past is often your relationships,” Chesky says. “It’s hard to lose your mind when you have deep connections and relationships… I realized I hadn’t been in relationships.”

Keeping friends as we get older is not a nice and easy walk in the park. An AARP survey found that nearly half of people over 50 say keeping friends is difficult.

“As we approach middle age, we find ourselves busy,” Marc Schulz, co-author of The good life and associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, previously said Fortune. “Some people wake up and realize that they really need to rebuild their friendship connections… a lot of their social connections may just revolve around work or just around other types of activities that their kids do.”

A CEO’s influence is a privilege, and the way they combat loneliness is critical to improving their well-being and the health of an organization.

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