Question number 3: How do I manage myself?
It’s lonely at the top
The way to the top — every top — is long and often crowded. Yet only few really make it there, and the way up is never ever easy. You have been working hard and intelligently to get into the position you are in today. But that doesn’t finish the job! Getting to the top is one thing, staying there and achieving great things for your company is another. You are shrewd, hard working, persistent, self-confident, wise at some moments and a risk taker at others, well educated, emotionally and intellectually intelligent, and maybe you have been lucky at times. Yet, as the saying goes: luck favours the well prepared.
Being a manager, you have surely used all your resources and selfconfidence while avoiding the trap of over-confidence. In reflective moments, you probably once in a while say to yourself: “I got the top job because I was able to play the corporate game to this level. Of course I am competent, of course I am intelligent, of course I am an expert in handling business as a top professional. I earned it to have been selected for this top job, and the people who supported me on my way up are no fools.
They are in for shareholder value, and I am good at providing just that. Sure, the pay and everything that comes with my top position is good. Of course, it is a stressful job, but hey, pressure comes with the territory.” Once in a while some managers feel loneliness at the top. If you don’t recognize this feeling: congratulations, how did you do that? However, occasionally feeling lonely at the top is all too common. Some even say that this is the toughest feeling that comes along with the top job — the cliché is correct: it is lonely at the top. “I don’t belong to another group anymore. I am the top manager, and there is just one spot at the top. Being a CEO is no T.E.A.M. sport: there simply is no team that provides me with shelter from the storm. If we hit success, success shines on me, and I have learned that distributing success among my employees makes me a better leader. If we hit trouble, trouble lands on me personally. Being the acting CEO feels like a one-man show with an audience of hungry wolves staring at me and waiting for my first wrong move. As a CEO, I sit high in the corporate tree, but the storm wind is howling. I’m visible, and I do feel vulnerable. On top of that, I’m afraid and convinced that if I show my vulnerability, the wolves are out there to get me. I sometimes feel scared, but am afraid of that feeling, even a little ashamed. That is not something a top manager ought to feel. If only the others knew how much I sometimes feel like an impostor…’’
What can you do?
You may feel lonely but the fact is that you are not alone! Rest assured that you are not the only person in a high position with these thoughts and feelings. No matter how difficult it may be at moments, having selfdoubts, feeling scared and overwhelmed by certain difficult decisions that you have to make alone is normal. Virtually no one will ever admit it in public, yet practically everybody recognizes these negative moments. Furthermore, a person who never doubts him- or herself is so self-centered that he or she has no openness to what happens around them. That is not the stuff successful managers, let alone CEOs, are made of. Now it’s one thing to have these doubts, it’s entirely another to nurture them.
Here are a few insights that you might want to try:
• Think of moments in the past when you were doubting yourself: what did you do to stop doubting and start acting? What worked best then?
• Remind yourself of your resources and the way you have used them on your way to the top.
• Remember the people who helped you on your way up: how did they do this? What was most helpful then? Can you find a similar person now?
• Write these thoughts down in as much detail as possible and keep this document in a safe place. The next time you find yourself in doubt, reading this personal document, written when your emotions were not clouded, will help you to recover faster.
• Talk to someone you trust and respect that is not involved in your organization and has no stake in your professional life. Being able to vent your loneliness and doubts, and just being listened to without getting advice, is often the shortest way out.
• Beware of the inevitable corporate yes-men and flunkeys, hear what they say but don’t listen. Instead, keep searching for authentic opponents and counterparts, who have no stake in opposing you but sharpen your ideas by their opposition.
• Guard your self-confidence as your most valuable weapon.