Leadership and loneliness

Condition humaine – an existential view of loneliness (II. Loneliness)


In contrast to the idealisation of loneliness described above, today we understand loneliness more as an expression of external and internal emptiness, often triggered by self‐​imposed or externally imposed isolation. Jürgen Margraf, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy (Ruhr University, Bochum), points out the consequences of social isolation: »[W]e are social beings. As humans, we have historically developed in small associations with a few dozen individuals. This environment has been relevant for our survival, evolutionarily we are not loners. We need these contacts. People who are isolated suddenly feel cut off and lonely, and thus anxious and depressed.« (»Social isolation by Corona: We are not loners.« Interview on tagesschau.de, 19 March 2020, own translation.)

However, man is not only a social being, as might be obvious when considering the topic of loneliness. He is a being dependent on relationship in four ways: he is in relationship with the Umwelt (physical), with his Mitwelt (social), with his Eigenwelt (psychological/​personal) and with the Uberwelt (spiritual/​transcendental). Loneliness poses an fundamental threat to this euphonious »harmony of four tones« in all existential dimensions: In the end, the human being remains alone in all decisive questions. He is in danger of losing himself, others, and the world. From an existential point of view, this »four‐​tones« is also intertwined in the experience of loneliness and clearly shows how fundamental loneliness, or rather the overcoming of loneliness, is for human beings.

Loneliness is experienced in four ways; sometimes one existential theme is stronger, sometimes the other, but they always influence each other, they basically cannot be separated from each other. These four themes can be found in countless leadership situations where loneliness, aloneness and even isolation can be found.

Isolation: »Noisy loneliness«.

»Power makes lonely« is an oft‐​quoted bon mot, or: »the air gets thinner the higher you get« (it then also gets icier, some say). The young team colleague who takes over as head of department is given more responsibility, more power, more leeway. Colleagues who were just peers are now co‐​workers and often hierarchically subordinate. Older colleagues may find it difficult to accept that they now have a younger superior. Out of sheer caution, the team keeps its distance. Conversely, the manager also protects himself by distancing himself, because unpleasant decisions (e.g., transfers or dismissals) are not infrequently associated with taking on the new task. The new head of department quickly becomes one of those »up there«. The (initially positional) distance grows not only to former colleagues, but there is also the distance from the beginning to the next higher management level, because the new manager first must prove himself and is not yet (and sometimes never will be) integrated into the upper management level. The work density increases, there is less time to look around the organisation again and again. Hyper‐​inclusion leads to less time for private life and personal interests as well. If mistakes or misconduct occur either within one’s own organisation or by one’s own person, the distance increases further. Isolation grows, possibly with increasing insecurity and fear.

In summary, we can speak here of loneliness caused by the external situation; it is consciously brought about by oneself or by others. It relates above all to one’s own place in the world. Despite the isolation, however, the Umwelt is still there. Because it is essential to our existence, and still perceptible, it makes itself felt, an experience of loneliness of a »noisy loneliness« arises. One could say that life asks us in this specific way and wants an answer.

Loss of relationship: »raging aloneness«.

It is not easy for the manager to develop a truly collegial relationship with the employees. The shaping of working relationships is particularly challenging: How much closeness is important to be able to work together in a trusting and communicative way? How much distance is necessary in order not to »fall out« of the leadership role, for example, by »bunking off«? The common lunch break is by no means as carefree as among colleagues, because the boss eats (and listens) in (and is there anything more intimate in the working world than eating together?). Employees suddenly make themselves invisible, turn away when the department head comes into the office. The sense of belonging is different, somehow the leadership does not really belong after all. Being together and exchanging ideas in collegial circles becomes more difficult; there is either a threat of a loss of relationships – or sustainable relationships do not develop at all. This also affects relationships at the management level; competition, silo thinking, hardened interfaces and mutual mistrust are not a good breeding ground for successful working relationships.

In times of distance work, this is compounded by the fact that the »total access of the organisation to the human being« also creates loneliness. Intended to capture the whole person and have him or her available, close, this person distances himself or herself – first inwardly, then also outwardly. First brought in through distance, then gone beyond the limits, the distance then grows again: however, for the leader it is one‐​sided, access becomes increasingly impossible. Loneliness grows. A vicious circle.

But because a person is a person and depends on being able to be with others, the longing for a collegial relationship grows – the joy of work, on the other hand, declines. What initially feels depressing on some days can lead to a deep depression.

Above all, the longing for relationship expresses itself in a loneliness experience of »raging aloneness«. Despite the loss of relationships, the Mitwelt still exists. In a depressive mode, this makes being alone seem more and more painful internally, the less authentic relationships are possible. During the presence of the other, we remain unfulfilled and go empty.

Identity problems: »resonanceless silence«.

The higher up the career ladder you go, the more difficult it becomes to receive honest feedback. The desire for exchange and reflection at eye level cannot be fulfilled. On the one hand, because at this point one’s own self‐​image gets in the way (»the staff cannot understand my problems, they are not in a position to do so«), on the other hand, because due to the unequal positions, no one dares to give feedback anymore either.

At the same time, discretion is increasing: Who likes to admit that they need the exchange? Needs are suppressed so as not to trigger false conclusions about one’s own leadership skills. Information deficits, lack of feedback, misjudgements, loss of grounding – all developments that not only provoke wrong decisions, but above all attack one’s own self‐​image. The uncertainty about one’s own person (»Who am I? Who am I in this role? Am I allowed to be like this?«) leads to a noticeable restlessness. This, combined with erratic behaviour (neurotic, especially schizoid behaviour not excluded), can be clear indications of significant identity problems with which the leader is struggling.

It becomes particularly problematic when a distorted self‐​image prevails from the start. Where almost thirty years ago Günter Ogger’s »Nieten in Nadelstreifen« (»Rivets in Pinstripes«) drew attention to glaring mistakes in filling key positions in politics and business, two decades of hype about high potentials have led to an increasing number of a personality type that can almost be called narcissistic occupying the executive floors. (An important reason for this lies in the selection mechanism: the criterion here is recruitment according to similarity, the so‐​called »cultural fit«).

Identity, selfhood – the personality has its space in the Eigenwelt. Lack of engagement with others, insecurities in self‐​image, lack of feedback and reassurance lead to an experience of loneliness, which can be described as »resonanceless silence«. When no one answers anymore, one’s own answer also becomes impossible. The result is trial and error, staging, self‐​presentation without a real echo.

Existential emptiness: »Oppressive infinity«. 

On the way up, up the career ladder, many convictions fall by the wayside. It is not for nothing that a hard‐​boiled cynicism has taken root in many executive suites. Depending on the experience gained, there is an increasing lack of belief that one’s own values coincide with those of the organisation. Cynicism initially protects what is important in one’s own life and gives orientation; one’s own values are first defended bitingly, then hidden, and finally their significance for one’s own way of life dissolves. Crises of meaning at work are always deeply personal crises, especially if they last for a long time. The (meaning) questions »What is important to me? What am I orienting myself towards? Why am I doing this or that? What do I want to be able to look back on?« are not only connected with aspects such as leadership performance – achievement – or success; they are closely interwoven with the experience of whether what one is doing is also meaningful. The question of one’s own place in the world, of successful relationships and of one’s own identity are inextricably linked to this. If, during the leadership task, there is increasing isolation, loss of relationships, insecurity in one’s own identity – and an inner, existential emptiness arising from perceived meaninglessness – then loneliness unfolds its threatening potential in full.

If one fails in giving meaning to one’s own life again and again, the result is an experience of loneliness in which the absurd gains the upper hand: the »crushing infinity and strangeness of the cosmos« (Malraux) penetrates the vacuum. This is the basis of the actual horror vacui – man must be afraid of this space of emptiness if he does not fill it himself with meaningful life in the time of his existence.

One possible human response to his deeply felt existential emptiness is suicide. For Camus, »the meaning of life« is the central question in the »Myth of Sisyphus« (1942), which has two answers: possibly to end life – or to »multiply« life. To anticipate: The latter was the only sensible answer for him (as it was for all important existential philosophers of his time).