No-One Ever Told Me …. It Gets Lonely At The Top

Andrew Weaver
April 19, 2022

What is your expectation of an effective leader?

Confident. Knowledgeable. Charismatic. Good Orator. Natural Leader. Inspiring. Expert.

You will find some or maybe all of those characteristics – even if superficially – within many leaders but how about lonely and/or isolated?

You don’t tend to see those items emerge from your standard leadership training manual.

Within the traditional and dare I say, occasionally testosterone driven, perception of leadership, it’s about leading from the front and showing no weakness.

Never showing any public vulnerabilities.

Certainly not articulating a sense of isolation that many feel and which can eat away at those in leadership roles.

Because the leader needs to portray positivity in the public domain.

To be driving and motivating their organisations to achieve ever greater heights.

To be shielding their team from any stakeholder collateral emerging from the boardroom, the CEO, the market.

But there are days when it’s harder than others. There are days when the smile is more painted than natural. When the bonhomie more forced that playful.

There are days (and often the wee small hours) when that sense of isolation and worse can crowd in and feel darker than it should.

When you have to battle alongside that old nemesis The Imposter Syndrome.

Who takes care of the leaders?

Clearly those in leadership roles have to lead and no-one gets inspired by someone who is permanently in the doldrums but what’s important here is to acknowledge the battle with self-doubt that most of us have and anyone who says they don’t is probably deluding themselves and others.

And whilst leadership training and development can help build the skills required to lead, it doesn’t always address mindset and how to manage these negative impulses.

Be reassured you are not alone.

Conquering Loneliness at The Top’ is quotes a study that suggests >50% of CEOs report feeling alone most of the time.

That number is replicated and probably worse for CTOs who carry huge responsibility for the core technology driving that business and sometimes truly isolated amongst a c-suite of non-technologists.

The article continues .. “many newly promoted CEOs learn ‘You become a title not a person.’ overnight, relationships change and the information you receive becomes filtered.  People want to meet with the CEO, not you as a person”

You might see it in your own CEO but it’s also the case for technology leaders that the more senior you become the more isolated you can feel.

The key here is how to deal with it.

What are the support mechanisms you can put in place to help you negotiate these moments of isolation and self-doubt? How to deal with the sheer fear of leadership?

Because when you’re at the top, the people who can understand and empathise with your challenges have thinned out. The peer pyramid has become more narrow than earlier in your career.

You can fall back into the bosom of family and friends but few of them understand what you do anyway. Your partner is often more interested about who is taking that rusty bicycle to the tip this weekend.

Acknowledge Vulnerability, Change Habits

Isolation often manifests itself by the way you work and simple changes to your lifestyle can help you breath and feel less intensity.

You need to be realistic about who you are, what you can achieve and when to reach out for support.

Many of our CTO clients worry about being left behind. They’re in a senior tech role but so consumed by immediate tasks that they miss the new tech or opportunity coming around the corner.

Many of you will still be too deep in the weeds and need to learn the art of delegation, to understand that you need space to consume the latest information and to create sufficient “me” time that enables you to step away from the firefight.

Also, when you have your successes, mark them down and remember them. Give yourself a pat on the back. Small wins matter, particularly within early stage companies. You need to build up a bank of ‘small wins’ to lean back into when the tougher times inevitably arrive and you feel lonely and vulnerable.

Visualise what the future successful you looks like, what is the vision of where you want to be, how you will feel? Classic technique for high level competitors is visualisation. Drives them forward during the rainy nights of leadership training and their own moments of self doubt.

Eat well. It’s often overlooked by hard working managers. Good diet tends to help you deliver great leadership.

Get those tough tasks out of the way early in your day, don’t let them linger. I rather like the eat the frog time management process.

You Are Not Alone, Finding Support

So that’s about the positive effect on your working lifestyle of small changes but what often matters most is understanding that these negative feelings and sense of isolation are not unique to you – indeed, very little we go through as leaders is unique but instead common to all leaders and high achievers, even if some won’t admit to it.

We know many successful people in the corporate world, in law as well as in tech, who have opened up with the question of “how did I get here?” and “when will I be found out?”.

If you’re a CTO going through these emotions then be sure to know that you might feel alone, but you are certainly not alone.

Those feelings isolation and vulnerability are shared by very many others in shoes and roles very similar to you – be assured, it’s not just YOU!

OK, now we’ve established that truth, what to do about it?

Most days you will wake up and can take on the world. But what to do with those bloody negative feelings? That sense that someone knows more than you? That you may be found out for talking bullshit or that there may be new tech that makes redundant some of your products or systems. All of which can lead to stress and burnout.

It’s great if you can share these issues with colleagues, but that is not always possible when dealing with the very specialised role of CTO.

Look for like minded peers who understand your challenges, can recognise your journey and provide support and sense checks that what you’re doing is right, or at least along the right lines.

Obviously building a network around you is powerful alongside more direct input via private mentoring or coaching, where you can find someone  who immediately “gets” your challenge.

A coach or network can provide an external channel of insight to help you unlock operational challenges, build your skill set and maximise your impact for the organisation.

Far sighted CEOs and L&D teams will recognise this need for an independent sounding board and encourage you to seek that support either internally or externally. If they don’t, you should ask them.

You’re working hard to be the best version of yourself and deliver an impact for your business and your career but don’t feel you have to know everything, it’s impossible.

Which is where the power of reaching out can have a significant impact on your performance, impact and mental health.


CTO Academy deliver one of the leading CTO Programs in the World.

We provide an online management course and private coaching.

We also deliver CTO Academy Tribes, a group coaching and peer2peer support programme where you can learn and share knowledge alongside like minded tech leaders.

“The skill set CTOs and IT Managers now require are a world away from what was needed just a few years ago. I have found the CTO Academy training modules to be highly valuable resources, providing broad-based business skills and awareness that are essential for succeeding in the modern workplace.” 

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