It Can Be Lonely at the Top

Erica Lee, Flywheel Brands, Inc.

The goal of climbing the proverbial ladder is to get to the top.  Yet how many people actually consider what it’s like once you get there? Ideally, there’s more financial independence, exciting travel opportunities and that big corner office you’ve had your eye on. Then of course, there’s the attainment of your goals and a chance to leave a legacy with your dutiful dedication.

The reality, however, can be shocking. It can be rather lonely at the top.

Without being prepared for what’s ahead, it can be overwhelming and even discouraging as you settle yourself into the leadership role you’ve been pursuing for years. Recognizing these realities can help you prepare for the personal challenges you may face:

Reality #1: Making decisions is hard. When you have the future of your whole team—or your company—relying on your decisions, it can feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. Although the isolation of decision-making can be overwhelming, the ability to make positive moves for your tribe or your venture is imperative. Author Malcom Gladwell discusses decision-making in his book, “Blink.”

“Truly successful decision making relies on the balance between deliberate and instinctive thinking…The second lesson is that in good decision making, frugality matters.”

By drilling down to the most important parts of the issue, you can apply fact and intuition to move past any fear of making the wrong choice.

Reality #2: You will make mistakes.

“Mistakes will happen without a doubt; no one is immune to them,” says Ryan Naegele, owner of Right at Home of Chattanooga and President-Elect of the Hixson Council. “Take on each mistake you make as you would any other challenge and put a policy or system in place that prevents or mitigates the mistake ever happening in the same way again. A business is a living, breathing monster that needs your care and your discipline. If you don't have rules and principles in place, it's easy for your business to run into oncoming traffic, often dragging you helplessly behind it.”

Reality #3: You’ll never be fully prepared. Whether you rise quickly through the ranks or spend your whole life pursuing a goal, it’s hard to foresee every challenge that lies ahead.

“When you start a company, it is easy to let yourself try think of all the possible scenarios and how you will face those challenges and adversities when they creep up,” Naegele says. “Sure enough, the one thing you didn't plan for will happen. Instead, the best thing to do is think of how you act towards others when these challenges happen. If you approach every day with a set of principles, you'll never need to figure out how you will deal with every possible scenario because you will always have the framework of those principles to guide you.”

Reality #4: You might become intimidating. As kind, soft-spoken and diplomatic as you may be, you may end up gaining a reputation for being intimidating. (No, not so much like Chuck Norris or Liam Neeson.) You've kind of become a big deal and that can be overwhelming for some.

Entrepreneur Magazine covered the issue of unintended intimidation in an Oct. 2017 article, “Can Leaders Be Both Likable and Respected?”

“It’s valuable to think of your image as a leader as a personal brand, where you’re in control of the dynamics. Being too likable and friendly can cost you some measure of respect, but focusing on respect so much that it makes you unlikable is also a problem.”

When you rise to the top, people notice, and they recognize dominant, dynamic traits. With the right balance, these leaders can foster a high level of respect and loyalty. The article summarizes that it’s important to “find a balance between these two dimensions, and create the character you want to exhibit as a leader.”

Reality #5: Surround yourself with positivity. “Show me your friends and I'll show you your future.” This popular Moosa Rahat quote speaks to the power of influencers in your life. Ginny Kincer, Executive at Tennessee Solar Solutions and President of the North Chattanooga Council agrees.

“One of my most valuable resources is my tribe, my friends,” Kincer says. “When I do need support, I reach out to the people in my network so I can tackle a challenge a little more easily. Then, we can celebrate together.”

Reality #6: Take care of Number One. There will be times when no one will be there to pat you on the back for your wins. You'll have to find that fulfillment from within, and the only way that you can continually maintain that source of self-motivation is to take care of yourself. Your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health is vital to maintaining your place in the marathon of your professional plans.

Kincer also incorporates a daily ritual that gives her a “realistic” perspective of her productivity and progress.

“I try to be very realistic by performing a self-analysis at the end of each day,” she says. “I’ll ask myself, ‘How can I fix an issue?,’ ‘What did I do wrong?,’ ‘What did I do right?’ Sometimes learning from yourself on a daily basis can help, whether it’s for professional or personal growth.”

The top rung is never too far out of reach. It’s a leader’s ability to adapt, grow and make a difference as an influencer that defines how accomplishments will be measured and career goals achieved.

How to Combat the Trials of Leadership

  • Present in the Trenches: Making time to get your hands dirty with the line-level team members keeps you humble and demonstrates your commitment and appreciation for them.
  • Diversify Your Experiences: Of course making sure you're well-rounded in your field is important, but it's also valuable to gain worldly experiences and draw from unrelated events or situations to better tackle the curve balls you'll be thrown.
  • Hard Work Goes a Long Way: It's one thing to show up to work. It's another thing to show up with dedication in your every move. Making the most of your minutes will maximize your overall success so that there's always time for family and friends.
  • Keep Winning Attitude: No one likes a kill-joy. By staying forever positive (and grateful) even in challenging times, morale will stay high and navigating the trials won't be so daunting or damaging.
  • Stay Humble and Hungry: It's great to go after the cheddar, but it's even more important to stay humble in the process. Recognize the people who help you get there and remain grateful throughout the journey.
  • Be Kind: It is true that you can attract more bees with honey. Kindness, gratitude and patience are all qualities that will promote partnerships and more rewarding advancement as you pursue your own vision of greatness.
  • Seek or Build a Tribe: The lone wolf mentality is cut-throat. And it can be done. However, the risks are great and the path that you create may not be one of integrity. Plus, who can you share your success with when you reach the top? It's your tribe that will always feed you with the determination, energy and wisdom to realize your goals.

Want to dive deeper into this topic? Tune into the related podcast episode “It Can Be Lonely at the Top” from the Flywheel Brands podcast, “Momentum Marketing: Fulfilling Your Urgency to be Great”. Flywheel Brands, Inc. is a leading brand marketing agency that has been generating momentum for its clients with creative solutions like custom promotional products, apparel, graphics and print since 1981. For more information on Flywheel, visit our website at, or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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