The Struggle Is Real: Leaders & Loneliness

Written by Dr. Kelly Whelan

Dr. Whelan is the Founder and CEO of Belem LLC. She specializes in partnering, empowering, and positioning executive leaders and teams for success by helping them design strategies that create stakeholder impact.

March 9, 2020

You’ve kept your head down; worked long, tiring hours all to show the decision-makers you’ve got grit.

You’ve celebrated the victory and with great excitement, accept the most senior position in the company. It doesn’t take long before you realize…it’s lonely at the top.

CEO’s and Loneliness

A recent Cigna survey of 20,000 people suggest almost one in two of the recipients feel isolated and alone. This percentage echoes the research of RHR who suggest half of the CEOs surveyed reported they experience loneliness in their role as leader. Of those leaders, 61 percent believe loneliness hinders their performance.

Leaders who are new to a CEO role admit struggling with isolation. Of these first-time CEOs, 70 percent say loneliness negatively impacts their performance.

If you’re not a senior leader, you may be scratching your head wondering how someone at the top of their game can be lonely? The truth is, the higher you go up the chain of command, the more lonely leaders become.

Relationships Matter

Senior leaders experience fewer work friendships and social intimacy. The relationships that were created on the rise to the top may no longer be suitable or become too time-consuming.

There is a learning curve as a leader pivots from colleague to boss. A leader’s new found position may put a strain on these established relationships. Lack of relational function in the workplace becomes a recipe for isolation.

Loneliness doesn’t affect just senior leaders. Loneliness affects the solo and entrepreneur leaders as they manage failures and setbacks often associated with innovation. Regardless of your position, loneliness is universal for leaders.


Senior leaders experience fewer work friendships and social intimacy.


Loneliness Is Universal

Although loneliness is universal, the good news is, you’re not alone.

Today’s leaders face a barrage of decisions, many of which can make or break their organization. They stand front and center, demonstrating strength and dignity only to retreat to their office, distancing themselves from the crowd and in isolation, revert to negative self-talk. They feel like an imposter, unworthy of their role, and often question their leadership.

My clients come into coaching for many reasons. Many of those reasons are not discussed around the water cooler or the nightly dinner table. Why? Fear of rejection, fear of being seen as inadequate and/or misunderstood. What I’ve come to know is that even the most senior leader struggle with confidence in their role at one time or another.

If you’ve been called into leadership, there’s a good chance at one time or another; you will experience lack of confidence and loneliness.


Even the most senior leader struggles with confidence in their role at one time or another.


Three Quick Tips

If loneliness comes creeping in, here are three quick tips to help get you to the other side:

  1. Engage! Find a group of trusted advisors, a mentor, or an executive coach. Connections are important. It’s essential to align yourself with those who’ve gone before you, understand, and listen without judgment. Verbalizing your feelings is the first step to overcome the loneliness you are experiencing.
  2. Be mindful of self-care. Stress depletes the body of nutrients. It’s essential to feed your mind, body, and soul. Get adequate sleep, exercise, and find a “healthy habit” that brings you joy. Grow in your spirituality and gravitate towards those who share your faith. Feeding mind, body, and spirit will help with the restoration process.
  3. Journal. Journaling allows a leader to get their thoughts to paper. When leaders keep their head-talk ruminating with nowhere to go, it prevents forward movement. This lack of forward movement leaves leaders stuck. Journaling allows leaders to put the unfinished business of the day into print so that they can find freedom and move on.

Leaders carry a heavy burden. What goes right or wrong falls on their shoulders. Leaders who struggle with loneliness can push through the pain and gain strength when they take action.

If you’re struggling with loneliness, what’s one action step you can take today?

If you’ve experienced leadership loneliness, leave us a comment describing what helped you get to the other side.

Until next time, keep doing great things!

Be sure to tune in here our podcast CONVERSATIONS For Leaders & Teams, or on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favorite listening platform!

Click here to purchase your copy of Leadership Excellence By Design: Strategies For Sustainability & Strength on Amazon!


Leadership By Design. Book by Dr. Kelly Whelan.

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