4 ways not to be lonely at the top

November 20, 2019

By Martha Sullivan, CPA, CVA/ABV, CM&AA, CEPA
Partner, Succession Planning Practice Leader

Martha leads HK’s succession and exit planning services division and is a regular contributor to Wisconsin’s InBusiness digital magazine.

It is often said that it is lonely at the top. While it’s not clear where the phrase originated, it is certainly a sentiment that many business owners, executives, and managers can appreciate. This is particularly true for the business owner and leaders with a strong entrepreneurial spirit.

These folks are a special breed. Key characteristics of entrepreneurs include a strong sense of independence, perseverance, high levels of energy, creativity and initiative, and a higher risk tolerance. They take on risks and responsibilities other people simply don’t have the stomach for, such as making sure that the business is generating enough sales so that their efforts ultimately allow for meeting their financial and moral obligations to pay their vendors, lenders, and employees. The buck stops here. While the rewards may be many, the burdens are plenty, too, and often the leader faces them alone.

You may be thinking, “So what? It comes with the territory.” Well, as it turns out, loneliness can be a big deal. Extensive studies at UCLA show that loneliness influences our physical health, right down to the cellular level and biological pathways. Loneliness impacts our immune systems and other key systems accelerating the negative consequences of everything from diabetes to high blood pressure, and heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer’s. These studies have determined that loneliness increases the levels of specific neurotransmitters known as norepinephrine that signals the “fight or flight” part of our brain, which feeds inflammation while suppressing the cells’ ability to fight viruses. Science is showing us that isolation or loneliness is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.

If it is inherently lonely at the top, and science is telling us that loneliness is bad for your health, what steps should you as a leader take to mitigate the compounded stress?

  • Set up a board of directors or advisors for your company: A board of directors or advisors, correctly selected and structured, provides a valuable sounding board for business issues that deserve consideration from diverse perspectives. Whether advisory or binding, the input of the board can provide clarity as well collaboration in addressing the challenges faced as a business owner.
  • Set up your personal posse: Surround yourself with a team of trusted, experienced advisors and build a relationship with them so s/he understands your business well enough to help you brainstorm ideas and vet concepts. Find that advisor or two, be it your financial advisor or accountant or attorney, who you know you can go and vent to and know that they will have your back as best they can. Use them as your own personal board of directors.
  • Expand your network: Get involved. Whether it’s an industry association, business owner or leadership council, family business center, country club, or other organization that provides the opportunity to network and educate yourself, it will provide you with the chance to meet others who you share a common interest with.
  • Find balance: Kind of like breathing, running a business is a 24/7 job. Sometimes you breathe fast, like when you’re running, and sometimes it just feels good to take a few long, slow, deep breaths to get grounded again. Explore and cultivate other interests. Build a social life outside of the office. Go play catch with your kid.

Some day you will leave the pace of business behind. It is vital that you invest now in the other important elements of your life like your relationships, activities and interests outside of work, and other connections so that when you move on, there are things you are excited to go do and people you want to go do them with.

Yes, it can be lonely at the top. But the truth is, it doesn’t have to be if a business owner builds their support systems to be connected to others. After all, it’s good for your health.

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