Leadership and loneliness

With increasing leadership responsibility comes the threat of loneliness. Man is not only a social being, as might seem obvious when considering the topic of loneliness. He is a being dependent on relationships in four ways: Relationship to the Umwelt, to the Mitwelt, to the Eigenwelt and to the Uberwelt. Loneliness poses an existential threat to this »four‐​sound of existence«: In the end, man remains alone in all decisive questions. He is in danger of losing himself, others, and the world. 

Loneliness: a taboo in the leadership world

From the glittering glass palaces on the Elbe and Alster, from HafenCity or St. Georg, it is not far to the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. A visit there can be combined with a lunch break, for example. If you look specifically, you will find a sculpture by Ernst Barlach, »Der Einsame” (»The Lonely One«), in the exhibition. The expressionist artist, whose expressive works were partly confiscated or destroyed by the National Socialists at an early stage, created the oak sculpture in 1911. It is one of Barlach’s well‐​known motifs – as a bronze, for example, it still fetches proud sums at the auctioneers – but today we would probably no longer call it modern.

The dark, twisted figure stands in stark contrast to our habits, fashions, demands, our contemporary ideas of art and design. It would hardly fit into the bright chrome‐​flashed and leather‐​muffled interior of the offices of the glass palaces. »The Lonely One« thus casts a harsh shadow on the prosperous activities of start‐​ups, global players, successful medium‐​sized companies and modern organisations and administrations – but above all on the self‐​image of aspiring executives: »Not hope is to be seen, yes, not even request; /​ He turns, writhes, tries despondently /​ To shake off the darkness that plagues him, /​ That cuts him off from all joy.« (From: Sonnets to Ernst Barlach, »Der Einsame«, Dirk Strauch, 2007. Own translation.).

The topic of closeness and distance is an everyday leadership issue, as it is always about shaping the different (working) relationships in which leaders find themselves. The question of how much personal closeness and distance leaders should allow or adopt is regularly the subject of discussions in coaching or counselling settings. When it comes to the topic of loneliness, however, leaders are cagey. Only with growing trust in the counselling relationship does the topic of loneliness, isolation or being alone come up now and then.

To this day, the topic is hardly to be found in the relevant management literature; only about a handful of publications have appeared on the subject in German‐​speaking countries in the last 20 years. But the internet has taken up the topic: »Young bosses: it’s lonely at the top«, »Loneliness at the top: top, but deaf«, »At the top you’re lonely«, »Lonely at the top: the invisible suffering of managers« or »Being a boss makes you lonely« characterise the headlines of the articles.

Roughly speaking, two groups of commentators can be identified. For some, loneliness is a natural part of the leadership role; it is even emphasised that the greater the responsibility, the better decisions can basically only be made alone. For them, the Kantian maxim »I can, because I want, what I have to« applies. Guided by the ideal of the heroic leadership type, their solution looks like this: Loneliness is part of it, accept it, learn to become strong. Tips and statements are mixed like »accept that you are in the firing line«, »expect envy or resentment«, »don’t make yourself mean with the employees«, »only a few people are ›real‹ leaders«, »you are responsible for the performance of your team«, »decision‐​making power makes you lonely«, »accept that your employees talk about you«, »at the top there is a lack of an equal exchange partner« etc.

For the other group, those who are guided by the post‐​heroic model of leadership, the focus is on the »humanity of the boss«. It is a matter of mastering the balancing act between effective, results‐​oriented leadership and empathetic staff leadership. A leader who can reflect and change himself will also be able to navigate his organisation into the promising change and lead top teams. Sophisticated proximity‐​distance management, leadership as a joint team task, staff appraisals and feedback, appreciation and »investing in social competence«, mindfulness of one’s own emotional world and self‐​optimisation through coaching are some of the recommendations given. Those commentators who have identified the truly dark side of loneliness are quite right to recommend professional help for addiction or depression, for example.

Neither group is per se wrong in their observations and with their recommendations. All authors recognise that loneliness and being alone closely accompany people in leadership positions. They also describe that people are reluctant to talk about this topic. It does not fit in with the culture of strength and success to also talk about the dark sides. Some explicitly point out this taboo. And all of them are unanimous in the opinion that the manager must face up to this topic, that he or she should find a way to deal with it.

But what does the taboo consist of? Aspects such as »not showing weaknesses«, »not making oneself vulnerable« or »not being allowed or able to ask anyone« are mentioned. These are aspects that refer to an ideal image of leadership. The strongest motive, however, is probably that in a highly social, highly communicative, highly dynamic, and ultimately complex and purpose‐​oriented system, it must not be possible to experience isolation, loss of relationships, identity problems or meaninglessness.

The taboo is the sometimes‐​great existential distress that leaders can experience during their careers. And since the existential issues mentioned here take a fundamental grip on the leader, motivational psychology and behavioural modifications are not enough. The lonely person in leadership is threatened in four ways; this must be recognised, and the real issues of loneliness brought into focus. – However, they are obscured by the backdrop of ideal images: loneliness is an old topos that has been idealised over the ages – the loneliness of the leader also belongs there.