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Lifting the Lid on Loneliness in Leadership - Liz Ward blog

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Lifting the Lid on Loneliness in Leadership

Written by Liz Ward

Liz Ward

By Liz Ward, Alumni Relations Manager, Windsor Leadership 

Exploring the challenges of persistent loneliness in leadership and taking steps to help ourselves and others. 

Cabin Fever 

Let’s be honest, for many in senior leadership, particularly those working remotely or in hybrid roles, loneliness and isolation can be a real challenge. The cabin at the end of the garden or spare room may be set up as the perfect remote office, with all the latest gadgets, superfast Wi-Fi and sit-stand desk, but the lack of human contact and relational loneliness can present difficulties for some and exacerbate the sense of isolation for others.

And it’s not just the physical loneliness. Often those in senior leadership roles can feel isolated at the top and alone in the decision-making process. Reflect for a moment on the recently promoted HR Director or COO heavily involved in a major organisational restructure, who is unable to maintain previous workplace friendships because of the sensitivity of their role. Who can they turn to in confidence, knowing that what they share will not filter back into the workforce and potentially have ramifications? As Debra Allcock Tyler, CEO at the Directory of Social Change shared at our recent Women in Leadership workshop, ‘Everyone needs someone who bolsters and encourages you, and somebody you can talk to confidentially, openly and frankly’.

Recognising the impact

Everyone’s story and setting is unique and yet there is often some commonality. In a demanding role, working long hours with limited human connection or reasons to take a breather, our resilience or ‘bounce-back-ability’ can be tested, and this can have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing.

Working those 12+ hour days with no regular breaks, chance to reflect, or connect with others simply isn’t sustainable on a physical or emotional level, even for the most focussed and driven amongst us. We all know it, but repeatedly silencing the irritating smartwatch buzz that’s nudging you to get some exercise is a dangerous habit to get into.

Facing the maelstrom 

The sense of everything being on your shoulders can be overwhelming, especially in the wee small hours of the night. The 2023 study ‘Public Leadership: Navigating Uncharted Waters’ found that ‘the servant-natured characteristic of public leaders meant they often neglected their own needs. While this can be beneficial in the short term, the longer-term impact can be harmful to both the individual and the organisation’.1 So if many of us admit to being on the brink, how can we make our lives more sustainable and not sacrifice our own wellbeing or negatively impact on our friends, colleagues and organisation? 

The role of trusted confidantes 

The good news is that many leaders enjoy a career in which good friends, family and a fantastic support network are an intricate part. It seems that the innate need for human connection can in many ways be fulfilled by having close confidantes and those with whom we can be ourselves2. Those key individuals whose opinions and values we trust, can act as a sounding board, be frank, honest, call us out or pick us up.

And it’s important to note that confidantes can come in many different forms, a mentor, peer in your organisation or even a senior leader from another sector, finding that right person can give you both some valuable space to reflect, and consider things from a different perspective. For those who’ve been through a Windsor Leadership programme, one of the most valuable long-term benefits can often be the ongoing support of a syndicate group. Those four or five people that you shared so openly and honestly with for a few days, inviting them behind the mask to discover the true-you with all your doubts, fears and uncertainties, could be valuable confidantes. If you connected well with yours, when was the last time you reached out? Perhaps it’s time for a reunion? 

Using compassion and collaboration as superpowers 

Conversations at our recent Women in Leadership workshop offered some useful insights into how we can model compassion and collaboration and how it may help to combat loneliness in leadership.

Firstly, we don’t have to fix everyone or own the emotions of others, and there is a healthy balance to be found in allowing people time, both in and outside of work, to own and process their emotions.

Take a step back. Reassess. Establish boundaries. Modelling self-care is important for those around us to see, and ring-fencing days off to recharge, whilst also delegating and creating space for others to shine, empowers them and at the same time releases us as leaders. There is a wonderful energy that comes through collaboration and shaping things together.

Compassion and collaboration dispel the loneliness of leadership and enable others to shine. Don’t feel you have to do it all yourself, there is great power in inviting others to contribute, from all levels of the organisation3. Some of those ‘awkward’ voices on your team may have gems to share that release thinking and offer a fresh perspective and vision to progress a particularly tricky issue. Take a risk and choose to listen’. (Kate Ellis, Chair of the Oil and Pipeline Agency). 

‘The increasing complexity of the context in which people work, the constantly shifting agendas and changing priorities mean, more than ever, that no one leader can have all the answers and that no one leader will be able to solve all the problems and issues that arise’.4 Encouraging collaboration can help dispel the loneliness of leadership and enable others to shine. A clear win-win. 

Cherished and flourishing 

Deep down we all thrive on being cherished and we therefore have a responsibility to care and support one another and look out for the signs of stress or burnout. But kindness needs to start with ourselves, particularly when we may feel isolated or lonely. Recognising signs of overwork and setting healthy boundaries can be a helpful first step.

‘Know yourself, be yourself and look after yourself’ – the phrase regularly comes up on our programmes, however it’s so easy to push it to one side when you’re back in the day to day of work, having left behind the cossetted environment of Windsor. Recognise the times of day when you work best.

Personally, I hit peak productivity late morning and again mid-afternoon to early evening after a screen break, leg stretch and sarnie. I’m definitely not what you’d call a morning person! Having given myself a hard time about it for years, I chose to drop the guilt and embrace it.

Being intentional about taking control of my diary has meant I’ve become more productive. Yes, it may seem like a luxury, but blocking diary time with a ‘meeting’ in order to have a breather or bite to eat, regardless of what level you’re operating at, can really boost subsequent productivity and wellbeing5. It’s basic, but how often do we give ourselves permission to do it? 

Booking days off, making the type of exercise you love a habit, and finding time each day to disconnect from technology isn’t a luxury, it’s essential. The hardest thing is often getting into the habit. However carving out time to recharge personally means you’ll be better prepared to carry the weight of responsibility that comes with leadership. Get someone to hold you to account – perhaps that trusted confidante or friend. Why not be as ruthless in ringfencing that time, and rigorously asserting the need for life balance, as you would be if you were doing it for work?

Having your five a day 

So how might we have our leadership cake and eat it too? Perhaps you might like to consider these five questions: 

  1. Being intentional - How are you being more intentional about looking after yourself? 
  2. Confiding - Who are the confidantes you are turning to for input and ongoing support? 
  3. Shifting a gear - What needs to shift to free you up to do things that will provide energy and hope?
  4. Disconnecting to reflect – how often do you detach from tech and the ‘noise’ around us to allow space to simply reflect? Perhaps explore some of our short reflection podcasts here.
  5. Allyship and mentoring – How are you reaching out? Recognise the immense value you can bring by getting alongside others and the personal enrichment you may receive as a result.6 Read this article by a former sceptic and consider whether you might mentor another leader or act as an ally.

So, as we enter this new season of lighter and longer days, might it offer a chance to perhaps lift the lid and share the challenges of leadership loneliness with others in similar positions and seek to bring about change? Do join the conversation on the alumni portal to share your thoughts.


1 Public Leadership: Navigating Uncharted Waters, November 2023, Pg 14 ‘Lack of Investment in Self’ 

2 Hawkley et al., 2008 


4 Public Leadership: Navigating Uncharted Waters, November 2023 pg 12, ‘Collaborative by nature’. 





The views expressed in Blogs, Articles, Podcasts and Videos posted on Windsor Leadership’s website and social media channels, remain the opinions of the individuals and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Windsor Leadership. Windsor Leadership does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of the information shared. We hope however that the views prove to be useful in reflecting on the challenges of leading today.

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