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Read this article with Tips for Leaders here on CEO Today

So there I was at Centre Parcs.

I had arrived in the big auditorium early just to get my notes in order. This was to be a keynote speech; I now had over 200 people in my sales organisation and £600 million per annum sales to achieve. This event was to bring together sales teams from three different parts of the business. It was the first time they had been together as a group, and for many the first time they had met their new leader – me.

Deep in thought I had not noticed the delegates start to enter the auditorium, then I heard a voice in my ear, ‘it’s lonely at the top isn’t it?’. My former boss, Bob, had crept up behind me, and he pointed out a big area of empty seats with me at the centre…people had filed in but they didn’t get too close to the new boss. As he got up to go he said, ‘you’ll need to get used to this, it’ll often feel like you’re on your own…but you know where I am if you need me’.

In the years since then I have often reflected on what Bob said. At first I thought he meant it as a joke, but now I’m not so sure. Leadership is often a lonely business, but there are positive steps you can take to make it less so, and to keep your sanity.

Here are 5 tips for leaders that I have found particularly useful and which have continued to help sustain my sanity over my time as a leader.

1.   Get a mentor

This is what Bob became for me. He had moved to a different part of the business, which was a help because he was divorced from the day to day stuff I was concerned with. Always available on the phone, email, or text, he had such a vast amount of experience about the way things work in business that often just to talk to him made the problem seem smaller.

I read ‘the Goal’ by Eliyahu M Goldratt sometime later, and in this novel the protagonist had his former physics teacher as his mentor, which seemed an odd choice. But this was art imitating life, as Eliyahu’s own mentor was his former physics teacher. The mentoring process seemed to work for him, as it had worked for me and Bob.

The knack is in choosing the right mentor, and then not abusing the privilege. After all leaders are expected to make their own decisions from time to time.

2.   Establish a peer network outside your business

Leaders often have common problems to solve, being a leader doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from someone else’s experience. Or if the problem is completely new, there’s nothing to stop you capitalising on another leader’s problem solving ability. This should also be a mutually beneficial relationship, as you can also help others, building trust in your network.

A former colleague of mine used his peer network a little differently. Rather than for pragmatic problem solving, his was more about emotional support. He was sufficiently emotionally intelligent to understand his own reactions to things, and in his peer network he had one person he would call if he needed sympathy, a different person if he needed to be told to pull himself together, and yet a third if he needed his ego boosting. Each to his own, but this idea really works…provided you choose your network carefully. Today the technology available to us makes this even easier using skype (or any kind of video call), WhatsApp groups, and carefully managed LinkedIn Groups.

It’s unlikely you’ll get the right result from the sort of talking shop that open ‘network events’ tend to spawn, so choose and nurture your network with positive intent and critical judgement.

3.   Establish a think tank inside your business

As a leader you don’t have a monopoly of good ideas, especially when it comes to ‘blue sky’ thinking. Start an ideas group or think tank, a small group is best (5 or 6 is great), and fill it with the best talent from different areas of your business. Meet once a quarter, circulate big topics for discussion beforehand (e.g. Brexit, global warming, digitalisation) and devote half a day to really intense discussion about the impact on your business.

Make sure you don’t let the ideas disappear into the ether and use this as an opportunity to spot future thought leaders.

4.   Share the load

Many leaders are too cautious when it comes to sharing their leadership responsibilities. An opportunity to build strength into your business is to surround yourself with good people, then share the leadership load amongst them. It’s more than delegation, it is collaboration, coaching, and succession planning all in one. (Head to our page on ‘Multiplier’ leadership to learn more about making the most of the people around you)

Someone once said, ‘Good leaders have followers, great leaders develop more leaders’. I may have misquoted Tom Peters here but you get the sentiment.

How confident are you about the abilities of the people who work for you? If you’re not, why is that? Is it your own unwillingness to let go, or is it that the people you have surrounded yourself with are genuinely not up to it? Either way there is a learning in this and some action you ought to take as a consequence.

5.   Get a coach

Very different from a mentor, the coach should be in the business, and should have an understanding that permits him or her to ask the right questions. Coaches should have access to all the appropriate techniques, and know when to apply them. Some people say that coaches can simply come from outside and apply their skills…in my experience this is less useful, you often spend a lot of time explaining the business. I know that many will disagree with me, but it’s my personal preference that the coach should really understand the business for maximum value and effectiveness.

One of the most useful coaching session I ever had was with a guy who had been trained in a whole basket of techniques. He was coaching me for a very important meeting with a very senior and clever person who had formerly been my director…and now worked for me. The said ex-Director had a fearsome reputation, and the rumour mill in the organisation was predicting a blood bath – the rumour being supported largely by former members of the ex-Director’s ‘empire’.

My coach, let’s call him Tony (because that’s his name), had been placed in the role of ‘executive coach’. In the organisation he was much less senior than I, but he’d had the right training and knew the business well. He told me to run the meeting in my head as if it were a video. I commentated out loud about what was happening, and every time we got to a sticky point, Tony would have me wind the tape back a bit, and then ask me what I could have done differently, then we’d select a new option to splice into the tape.

I thought this a bit of ‘hocus-pocus’ at the time, but was astounded when I had the actual meeting…it was a bit like the film of the book. No bloodbath, just a pre-paced professional and constructive meeting, with great commitment on the other side from the former ogre. With him on my side the leadership task suddenly became a whole lot easier.

5.   And a half…  

There is a trend in this kind of piece for ‘5 Tips’ or ‘the Top 5’. But let’s break the tradition and have 5 and a half.

My half tip for leaders concerns the leader’s social life – having a life outside your business where you can simply offload for no other reason than to ‘vent’. Have no expectation of answers or solutions from your friends, just empathy, mickey taking, getting some perspective (others may have bigger problems)… helps a lot. It stops you building things up, and makes you feel less isolated.

There is nothing radically new here, these are sensible checks and balances that all leaders need to help them lead effectively. In my experience few do this…I can’t understand why they would put their sanity at risk when a few simple measures can make things so much easier.

I am convinced that part of the reason that leaders don’t build this support mechanism is because they think they shouldn’t need it. But everybody needs help, and Meredith Belbin’s famous quote that ‘all of us is better than one of us’ may be a little out of context here, but I think it fits well. Once the leader is persuaded that they can benefit from such an infrastructure, the next question is ‘how do I do it’ – which is a much simpler problem to solve.

It can be lonely at the top, but it needn’t be that way all the time.