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Overcoming the unspoken challenge of leadership – Cornelia Choe, The Leaders Alliance

When people think of isolation and loneliness at work, it’s most often in the context of fully remote workers or members of the gig economy. Rarely does the picture include top leaders. But many senior executives also experience the same lack of connection and feelings of isolation, which left unattended, can severely affect career success and health.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, management consultant Thomas J. Saporito shares, “Half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61 percent believe it hinders their performance.”

As leaders, we’re constantly confronted with risky problems that don’t have satisfactory solutions. The emotional weight of these responsibilities can be tremendous, especially without a safe space to connect with others. Frequently, we have no one with whom to share these feelings.

When stepping into a new leadership role, it might seem that colleagues treat us differently from day one. Few people can identify with the heightened responsibilities and challenges borne by the leader of an organisation. And as a result, leaders are distanced from their former peers, losing emotional connection, trust, and authenticity. Over time, this lack of mutual understanding can feel like rejection and push us away from those with whom we were once close. And, as the American Psychological Association observed, “The pain of being excluded is not so different from the pain of physical injury.”

Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, believes feeling stressed and lonely breaks down our health. He concludes, “Loneliness is as dangerous to your health as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day or being obese.” Waldinger shares that the most important factor for living a happy and healthy life is close, high-quality relationships, which he sees as even more important than career achievement, exercise, or a healthy diet.

Building high-quality relationships

It doesn’t have to be “lonely at the top” for leaders. Proactive efforts – specifically nurturing high-quality relationships – can relieve much of the feelings of isolation, mitigating stress and improving performance. These relationships are supportive and authentic, and their benefits touch our personal and professional lives.

Researchers writing for Behavioral Sciences found that high-quality relationships lead to “higher commitment, lower level of reported job stress, and increased perception of social impact.” In addition, a report in the Journal of Relationships Research found that these relationships create a profound sense of trust, security, and satisfaction.

Although our roles don’t naturally lend themselves to creating high-quality connections, leaders can follow a more proactive approach by taking three steps to consciously build these relationships.

  1. Connect with those in similar positions

Creating high-quality connections with other leaders who understand our challenges is one of the best ways to address our loneliness. Learning about the experiences of others – and sharing our own – requires empathy and curiosity, and creates authentic connection. Facilitated peer groups, such as those offered with The Leaders Alliance, are highly effective forums for leaders to gain meaningful connection with peers facing similar challenges.

The leaders in these small groups meet regularly to share their experiences, problems, and solutions with each other in confidence, creating a trusted circle of advisors. Supported by knowledgeable moderators, these groups offer senior executives the space to connect, learn, and strengthen their leadership skills together.

  1. Connect through contribution

Researchers have repeatedly confirmed that spending money on others creates more happiness for us than spending on ourselves. Indeed, Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie, writing for the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, found a wide range of benefits from helping others, including strengthening social connections.

Of course, the demands we face while leading an organisation often limit our time and ability to connect with family and friends. However, using the time we do have available to find meaningful ways to contribute to those close to us will help strengthen these relationships.

Similarly, peer groups help enhance our social connections by presenting opportunities to help other members. One senior leader who is active in a group described a common sentiment among the members: “Sharing the strength of our collective experience really brings us together. It changes us from I to we.”

  1. Connect through authenticity

Belonging assures that we’re accepted and appreciated by others for our authentic selves. To be accepted for who we are, however, we must first know who we are. Asking courageous questions and getting supportive feedback from trusted allies builds this self-awareness and an understanding of how our actions and reactions affect others.

Peer groups provide a safe forum to gain this awareness. One leader found that connecting with peers in comparable roles and seeing that they struggled just as much as she did with similar problems, reduced her stress levels. Through their exchanges, she and many others gained the confidence to show their authentic selves to those around them and to be appreciated for it in return.

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world,” wrote Brené Brown, author of Braving the Wilderness and professor at the University of Houston. Connecting with our authentic selves eases our ability to connect with others, and the combination reduces our isolation and makes us stronger leaders. 

Expanding our capacity for empathy, curiosity, and partnership

The power of peer groups is based on three fundamental human qualities: empathy, curiosity, and partnership. Consciously expanding our capacity for each of these qualities will take us a long way toward addressing loneliness and isolation. It also enables us to enjoy high-quality relationships as leaders so we can move our organisations forward together.

Participating in peer groups is one of the most efficient ways to harness the positives of peer mentoring: making quality connections with fellow senior executives, creating fulfilling relationships and finding a safe space to truly belong.

The Leaders Alliance and Oxford HR are developing a peer group leadership programme

More information to follow in the coming weeks, but if this is something you would be interested in joining, please register your interest here:

Cornelia Choe
Cornelia Choe
CEO - The Leaders Alliance

Cornelia gained her skills as a moderator at the Harvard Kennedy School under the guidance of global authorities on leadership. Her career journey has led her to work with leaders in industries ranging from private equity and law to government and non-profit. Cornelia’s rich work and life experience on three continents has given her critical insights into how people with diverse backgrounds connect and complement each other, and how to guide and facilitate discussions to create connection, trust and benefit for all.