break the bubble

January 31, 2020

 Leadership loneliness largely results from an interplay of multiple factors—absolute power and responsibility, conflict with teams, attempts by ‘followers’ to limit the leader’s authority, and so on. However, there are ways to stave off isolation and stay in touch with the real world.


Leadership loneliness may strike as a harsh reality, but it is not impossible to fight its perils, opines Morgen Witzel, University of Exeter Business School.

 ‘It may be lonely at the top, but the view is terrific.’

It is an old joke, but it has a point. Business leaders often complain about the loneliness of their task, but they receive plenty of compensation: fat salaries, plush offices, company cars, flunkeys carrying out their every whim, and so on. Yes, leadership may be a solitary task, but no one twists your arm and makes you become a leader (at least, not usually). The hardships of the post are something people accept voluntarily, knowing that even if they fail, there will be a nice payout and a good pension at the end of the day.

That is the hard-hearted view, but there are good reasons why we should take the notion of leadership loneliness seriously. That loneliness can easily turn into isolation, with the leader trapped inside a bubble. Nor is that bubble entirely of their own making; unscrupulous followers will often use the leader’s isolation to deliberately exclude them and gather more power to themselves. Isolated leaders tend to make poor decisions, and that leads to trouble for the whole organization. Suddenly, the view from the top is no longer quite so rosy.

why are leaders lonely?

In order to explore the notion that lonely leaders are bad leaders a little further, we need to first work out why they are lonely in the first place. A superficial glance at most organizations would suggest that if anything, leaders have almost too many people around them. A corporate CEO’s diary is constantly full. There are constant meetings with shareholders, senior executives, the board of directors. Then there are the supporting cast, secretaries, personal assistants, PR people, drivers, security guards, and then there are outsiders, consultants and lawyers, journalists wanting interviews, and so on, and on. One former corporate CEO told me that he felt he was on a treadmill, the schedule and the pressure never-ending. “I felt I was constantly giving to other people”, he said, “and I rarely had a moment to myself to just stop and think, to take stock”.

Morgen Witzel is a Management Historian, Author of 21 Books, and a Fellow of The Centre for Leadership Studies at The University of Exeter Business School.

Every leader is part of a team, and relies on that team to get things done. If they truly were alone, leaders would be entirely powerless. As British leadership guru John Adair pointed out, leadership is a combination of the task that needs to be done, the team that does it, and the leader that guides the team. Leaders are just one element in the triad.

Yet, despite all this, leaders are alone. One of the paradoxes of leadership is that the leader is both ‘part’ of the team and at the same time ‘apart’ from it. My colleague Nigel Linacre describes this very well in a chapter in the book Leadership Paradoxes, which he and I co-edited. In part, he says, this is a matter of hierarchy; appointments in most organizations are made top-down, and the leader’s ability to hire and fire, promote and demote, gives him or her power over followers. It is that power that sets them apart.

Linacre is right, but I would argue that even in non-hierarchical organizations, the leader still stands apart from the rest of the team. The leader is the person from whom everyone takes their cue. Even if targets and goals are agreed through mutual discussion, the leader is still there to keep everyone focused and make sure their eye is on the ball. It is the leader who receives our congratulations when we succeed, and the leader who takes the blame when we fail.

One of the paradoxes of leadership is that the leader is both ‘part’ of the team and at the same time ‘apart’ from it.

As I write this article, the Ashes, the cricket test series between Australia and England, is underway, and both captains, Joe Root and Tim Paine, are being heavily criticised for the performance of their teams even though the failures are not due to them personally. The buck has to stop somewhere, and it usually stops with the leader. That in itself, as many leaders have said, is a source of loneliness. Knowing that you and you alone will carry the can if things go wrong can be a very cold dark place indeed.

collaboration and conflict

In my own research for a book on the history of leadership, I took as my starting point the ‘social space’ of leadership as defined by Richard Bolden and his colleagues in their book Exploring Leadership. Their view is that leadership is a process, the interaction between leaders and followers. Each needs the other, and each is part of the equation of leadership.

My purpose was to explore in more detail what exactly happens in that social space. Looking at the interaction between hundreds of leaders and their followers, around the world and far back in time, I concluded that the process has a dual nature, part collaboration and part contest. Both are an essential part of leadership, and both often take place at the same time and between the same people.

Collaboration, as we have already seen, is essential. Both leaders and followers have goals, things they want to get done; that is why they joined the organization. If they want to reach those goals, then they must collaborate and work together. Workers on the shop floor need strategic direction and support to tell them where to direct their efforts, while the leaders in the boardroom need the willing brains and hands of the workers to carry out the business tasks.

But the social space is full of conflict. As Linacre pointed out, leaders have power over followers. That power comes in part from their position, but in part it also comes from followers themselves, who agree to give up a portion of their own power when they join the organization; they agree to work in the service of the organization and take direction from its leaders, in exchange for the benefits (pay, etc.) the organization gives them.

However, followers tend to hand over power grudgingly, and once inside the organization they push back, attempting to nibble away at the leader’s power and collect more for themselves. Power gives us more control and autonomy, and means we do not have to obey so many orders from someone else. We can see this clearly in trades union negotiations with management, but even in small teams one can often see the dynamic–people trying to carve out little power bases for themselves to create more autonomy and control.

As members of organizations, we accept the need for leadership, but we do what we can to limit the leader’s authority over us. And, of course, on the other side of the social space, leaders are often doing whatever they can to assert ‘more’ control so they can run it the way they themselves want, and not in the way that followers demand.

That constant tension and conflict, even if only exists at a low level, is the principal reason why leaders feel lonely. They know, as the former CEO I mentioned earlier said, that everyone wants something from them. They are givers as well as takers, and much of their energy is spent managing the tensions and conflicts around them.

consequences of loneliness

Why does all this matter? Because, as noted above, the loneliness of leadership can affect judgement. Two kinds of problems commonly manifest themselves. First, there are leaders who do not realize they are lonely, who deliberately sets themselves apart from the rest of the organization in the mistaken impression that they can make all the big decisions on their own. In his chapter on leaders and teams, Linacre described his own experience of leading a large advertising agency. He believed that as managing director, he had the sole responsibility and power and could take all the major decisions on his own. The result, he said, was predictable; after initial success, the agency went into decline and was eventually sold.

A much more toxic example is Richard Fuld, former chairman of Lehman Brothers, which went into liquidation during the financial crisis in 2008. Fuld had been the leader of Lehman Brothers for many years, and seems to have believed both he and the bank were invulnerable. He systematically rooted out anyone in the bank’s top leadership who might oppose him, and surrounded himself with yes-men and yes-women. Only two of his board of directors had banking experience; the rest were there as window dressing. Fuld’s lonely leadership led to a series of bad investment decisions and rapid expansion during an economic bubble, which eventually killed the bank.

The second problem is: the leaders who know they are isolated but cannot break out of the bubble. They are spoon-fed carefully selected information by their subordinates, who keep them in ignorance of the real facts. An early master of this was Grigori Potemkin, chief minister to the Russian Empress Catherine, the Great. When the empress undertook tours of the countryside, Potemkin ordered specially constructed new villages to be built along the route she planned to take, and populated them with happy smiling people who turned how to cheer their sovereign. In this way, the empress was kept ignorant of the terrible poverty that existed in much of the country.

An article in Harvard Business Review, How to Overcome Executive Isolation, describes how World Bank president James Wolfensohn encountered similar problems when making field visits to Africa. After several visits, ‘he realised he was only being shown successful projects, smiling villagers, and grateful government officials.’ He realised that in order to discover what was really going on, he needed to get away from his guides and get out into the field on his own.

Many businesses, including some very large ones, fail when leaders become isolated from their followers and no longer know what is going on within their own organization. I have cited before in this column the example of IBM in the 1980s. The leaders of IBM, the world’s largest computer maker, cherished the notion that IBM’s culture was full of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit where maverick thinkers tried out new ideas. In reality, the culture was one of iron conformity where any trace of new thinking and independent ideas was quickly crushed. Not until the company was poised on the brink of bankruptcy did the corporation’s lonely leaders, stuck in their bubble, finally realize the truth.

Leaders who know they are isolated but cannot break out of the bubble. They are spoon-fed carefully selected information by their subordinates, who keep them in ignorance of the real facts.

cures for loneliness

Writing in Forbes magazine in 2012, Kristi Hedges, herself a former CEO, suggests three strategies to help leaders feel less lonely. The first is to find a peer group. In most countries, there are roundtables or similar forums where leaders can get together, share problems, and sometimes just let off steam. These can be useful, although confidentiality issues may mean the leaders cannot speak as freely as they would like; leaders of rival organizations may also be part of the same group. However, the experience of knowing that other people are experiencing the same feelings of loneliness and detachment can be very helpful and cathartic.

The second recommendation is to form a personal board of advisors, a kitchen cabinet with whom the leader can share confidences and burdens. This can be very effective, but care has to be taken with appearances. It is easy for this kitchen cabinet to be seen as a cabal which is influencing or even controlling the leader, edging out other stakeholders. This has often been the case in politics, where the president or the prime minister’s personal advisors are seen as holding the real reins of power; and sometimes, indeed, this has been the case.

A third recommendation is to find a coach or mentor, or a critical friend; someone to whom the leader can speak confidentially and use as a sounding board. I have served as a critical friend, and know how valuable leaders find this facility. They can speak freely, say things they would not say even to their own close subordinates and leadership team members, and in doing so, get rid of a lot of mental baggage. That in turn allows them to see the situation more clearly and to make better decisions.

Another way to get out of the bubble, though, is to do what James Wolfensohn did, and physically leave the bubble and go out into the field. This is sometimes called ‘management by walking around’, and it has its roots in part in the Japanese practice of gemba walking, paying regular visits to the shop floor, and in part in practice at Hewlett Packard in the California in the 1960s, where executives were encouraged to spend time down on the shop floor talking with workers. Many companies have similar policies although sometimes it takes a disaster to kick-start them into adopting it. In 2014, after Tesco’s failed billion-dollar venture in America and a financial scandal that exposed a black hole in the accounts, new managing director Dave Lewis ordered his directors to start spending time in Tesco stores and warehouses, reacquainting themselves with the organization.

Management by walking around connects leaders with the organizations and keeps them out of the bubble. In itself it is not a cure for loneliness, but it will help mitigate some of loneliness’s most pernicious effects, and keep the lonely leader in touch with the real world.