Some of the factors that contribute to leaders’ loneliness are unavoidable. Bosses cannot help but be somewhat isolated from their employees; that’s the nature of being the boss. But there are things leaders can do to make life at the top less lonely—and those strategies can help people still climbing the ladder, as well. (In fact, it is better to make changes to your attitude toward work early, before it’s too late.)
Solving the workaholism problem requires complete honesty. Workaholic leaders lie to themselves all the time. They convince themselves that that 14th hour of work is vital to their success, when, in reality, their productivity is likely severely diminished by that point, and what they’re really doing is blocking out the dullness, pressures, or pain of ordinary life for one more hour. This is a hard problem, but it will never be solved without admitting that there is a problem in the first place.
Acknowledging this truth also requires facing what the workaholic is avoiding with the extra hour. If it is dysfunctional relationships—possibly brought on by years of neglect—it will only get worse by indulging the addiction. It is worth remembering that the cliché image of an old man on his deathbed saying to his family, “I wish I’d spent more time at work,” is meant ironically. To escape his addiction, the workaholic has to reapportion time and use it to reestablish friendships and family life.
From the November 2019 issue: Why you never see your friends anymore
Those who are lonely only at work should note that happy leaders don’t leave friendship up to chance. Take the case of Ben Franklin. In 1727, he founded what he called the “Junto Club,” an informal group of men, most of whom were more or less at his level of responsibility and standing in Philadelphia. The club provided Franklin an outlet where he could develop real friendships, speak freely, seek advice, and develop ideas. He had stumbled across one of the secrets to success without loneliness: building your own intimate community outside of work. Some people do this through golf; others through Bible study. But it doesn’t matter what activity you do, or what form your friendships take—what matters is creating an ecosystem where you can spend time with others and be seen as a person, not as your title.
Anyone can benefit from creating opportunities to socialize outside the office, but leaders often need these intentional friendships particularly acutely. These days, such clubs don’t have to be even geographically circumscribed. My own little Junto has members as far away as Atlanta, San Francisco, and Milan—but we’re all as close as a tap on an app.
Read: The scheduling woes of adult friendship
It can indeed be lonely at the top. But loneliness is not a necessary condition of success, any more than unpaid taxes are a condition of making a lot of money. It is just a cost one must face honestly, and manage.
And, unlike taxes, loneliness can be defeated. Furthermore, the management and remediation of loneliness—to seek and give love—is its own reward. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his joyful essay “Friendship,” “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.” With knowledge and effort, those happy sentiments are available to all of us.