Why Is It Lonely At The Top?


What are some of the most common attributes about this place we call the top?

For one, it is a place of power, so people who may not have the same power, may be wary and thus stay away. This has nothing to do with the personality or people skills of the one at the top. It just is. We make it up and believe what we have made up.

Another attribute is that the person at the top carries certain responsibilities, most of them big, at least in the minds of others. That level of responsibility scares some people. Most folks do not like to get too close to what scares them, so some people avoid the person at the top because they carry such big responsibilities. Again it is not that the top person is bad or unapproachable or anything other than carrying big responsibility.

The person at the top usually has this imposing office, like big and fancy and a massive desk sometimes, and a gatekeeper outside their door. I don’t just go marching in there. I may need an appointment or at least to be announced. That kind of physical attribute, that is so often a part of being at the top, can generate thoughts of King or Queen in residence in their royal chambers. That idea was planted when we were children enjoying seemingly innocuous fairy tales. And here it is, creeping around in our sub-conscious, cautioning us to tread carefully. If not, as the Queen loved to say in the tale Alice in Wonderland, off with your head.

People at the top tend to be in demand, busy, busy and it can feel like I really ought not interrupt. This is not necessarily because they are too busy for me, though they might be, but because I make up that they are too busy for me. An extension of that can be that in conversation, if the person at the top speaks, it is seen as a fait accompli, decision made, nothing more to discuss. These ideas can feel stressful, so I may just not bother and thus stay away.

And more.

It is not that my input and so on, would not be of value to the person and to the company, it is that I have these almost subliminal, valid to me, reasons to stay quiet. That grows a gap between us and the person on the other side of that gap, the person at the top, can feel lonely. They can feel like there is something wrong with them. Maybe they consider taking some communications and leadership training to alleviate this gap. But that, by itself, won’t work because the gap is over here, inside me, wrapped in my made up ideas. The ideas mentioned above and many more like them, are simply made up, some from fairy tales heard in our childhood.

I recall a frustrating experience where I was hungry for some ideas, some brainstorming on a problem I was working on. I left my castle and met a few of the staff (yeah, I was at the top) and engaged them in a discussion. Some great ideas were bubbling up, until, until I made a comment about liking one of the ideas. As if lightning had hit, they all went silent and started to walk away. I begged they stay and tell me why the shutdown. They said I had decided, they thought their job was done. I simply offered a bit of praise for one of the ideas and had certainly not decided anything at all. I had to change my approach in future conversations to account for this common reaction to simply sharing my viewpoint. One tactic was to always speak last. Now I was the one staying quiet about offering my own opinion. I shifted to a diet of a minimum of mostly clarifying questions. That worked.


Is it inevitable that the person at the top will be alone? No. However, the person at the top, who does not apply some curiosity and make some moves to mitigate the kinds of things described above, is likely to be somewhat isolated from her/his team. Every example has a range of solutions to decrease the isolation. After all, most of it is just made up.


Joseph Seiler MCC