Category Archives: Leadership

It Can Be Lonely at the Top

lonely2This past week I had the opportunity to participate in a simulation designed to foster empathy and develop a better understanding of the different positions within an organization. The workshop was based on the work of Barry Oshry and his discovery that we all assume very predictable roles and demonstrate typical behaviors when we join any type of organization. He discovered that we all, at one point or another, are in positions as Tops, Middles, or Bottoms and we all share similar experiences when we are in these positions. (If you are interested, I would encourage you to check out his work in more detail. This post is more about my own reflections as a workshop participant and not necessarily a review of Mr. Oshry’s work.)

During the simulation I was assigned the role of a Top in our fake company. Along with two other colleagues, we were tasked with work very similar to what is required of people in top leadership positions. We experienced very typical situations where our time, energy, and sense of accomplishment were taxed at a very intense level. Let me just say that by the end of the simulation I was more than happy to give up my Top position.

Here are a few of my takeaways:

When they say that “it’s lonely at the top” they aren’t kidding. While I had two other colleagues with me during the simulation I felt very disconnected with the Middles and the Bottoms. I felt like I was missing out on the fun and the community.

I worried constantly that the Middles. I was concerned that they were feeling frustrated with us because we weren’t giving them the information and direction they needed to get their work done. I knew they were supporting us and our leadership but I also knew they were feeling cutoff and left out of the discussions that would have a direct impact on them. I also knew that they were very faithful to the Bottoms that they represented and that they felt they were letting their own teams down too. Ug.

The Bottoms were on my mind and in my heart the entire time. I knew they were feeling very cutoff and were developing a bad case of the “F*%k its”. But I also knew in my heart that they wanted to support us, they wanted to be a part of the bigger picture but due to the Tops’ lack of connection with the rest of the company the Bottoms truly felt no allegiance to us. And that hurt. I wanted to go connect with them but I questioned myself  and heard that ego voice speaking loudly about how the Bottoms will think my desire to connect was nothing short of political BS and it was all in an attempt to make me look better in their eyes. My desire to truly connect with them left me feeling more and more like a fake and a fraud; truly disconnected from my authentic self.

Did I mention that this all took place over the course of a couple of hours?

So many emotions, so little time.

Through the whole process I wanted to retreat to a quiet corner and just spend some time in silent reflection. That was not an option as the questions, demands, and needs of the company were bearing down on us like a hurricane. I could feel myself becoming very resentful of my role and longing for a simpler position.

I have been reflecting on what we ask of leaders and how we, as coaches, support them. My go-to tools for helping someone in this kind of position are journaling, quiet reflection time, meditation, exercise, making sure they stay hydrated, eating well, getting out in nature, and more.

Granted, the simulation was designed to exaggerate the situation for purposes of example but did I have even a minute to drink water? No, even though it was available for me. Did I have a chance to go out side and get some fresh air? No, there was no time. Quiet reflection and journaling? How quaint.

As I continue to process this experience and refine my toolkit of supports for leaders I have a little bit clearer understanding of what it takes for them to do their job. Do I still think self-care is important for people in leadership positions? Absolutely. Will I continue to recommend that leaders use the tools of reflection and develop their own self-awareness? Of course. But I will also encourage them to forgive themselves when they falter, to cut themselves some slack when they revert to their old habits and behaviors, and most importantly, love themselves even when their egos tell them they are failing.

More to come on this topic in the future but I would love to hear what this brings up for you. Have you been in this position before? How did it make you feel? What are your tools for supporting leaders? Supporting yourself?