It’s Lonely at the Top

I have long been a fan and admirer of Andy Murray, so naturally I was delighted for him when he recently reached the pinnacle of his sport by being crowned the world’s number one-ranked male tennis player. Amazing!  Perhaps even more amazing when we reflect on the fact that he comes from a small town (Dunblane) in a country (Scotland) with practically no history to speak of in the game of tennis.  His journey to get to the top has been far from easy.  He has played in an era which has been dominated by three other great players, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, an era that most tennis experts agree has been the most highly contested period of excellence in the men’s game – ever!

And here he now stands. On top of the world.

So, what next?  Well, the only certain thing about being world number one is that the day
will come when you will no longer be world number one.
 Sorry to introduce such a note of pessimism to proceedings, but that is the stark reality.  It’s a lonely place being out on your own. Not everyone has enjoyed it, and not everyone has coped well with it.  Andre Agassi has described how miserable it made him, and John McEnroe found it lonely and exposed. He once said, “You’re out there on your own island, and you feel like you’re disengaged, not only with the rest of the world, but the rest of your competitors, some of them friends.”andy_murray_practice_27107035063

This is similar to how many CEOs, Business Owners and Leaders describe the feeling of being at the top, or out in front of their organisations and companies. It can be a lonely place.  Not literally of course, as leaders spend their days surrounded by people, but for many, being the person solely responsible for a company’s future direction, the livelihood of thousands of employees and the wealth of millions of shareholders, can leave them feeling isolated, lonely and unhappy.

Can the people that surround leaders be trusted to give good advice or bring bad news?  It does of course depend greatly on the culture of the organisation and the personal style of the leader, but oftentimes there is an invisible wall that gets erected between a leader and their people. Leaders may feel that they ‘should’ have all the answers, and their people, customers and investors are likely to reinforce this ‘unreasonable’ expectation by looking to the leader for those answers. Asking for advice or opinions on direction of travel may just about be acceptable, but revealing vulnerability to the extent that a leader may say that they “do not know what to do next” could be thought of as damaging to his or her reputation and credibility. And, yet, it is through vulnerability that leaders stand the best chance of getting the best from the people around them.

As long as leaders presents a veneer of being all-knowing and all-seeing, the expectations heaped on them will be huge. People will not be encouraged to step up and take responsibility and mistakes and crises, when they happen (and they will) will form an orderly queue outside the CEO’s door waiting ‘to be fixed’.  The vulnerable leader encourages people to take responsibility, to bring suggestions, to be creative and to own problems. The result is a wider pool of talent and a better chance of fostering future leaders. Meanwhile the leader will be able to enjoy a less isolated, lonely and stressful period at the top.

Andy Murray has the raw talent to win tennis matches, of that there is no doubt. However, getting to number one, and dealing with the new challenges that status demands, are about more than his physical ability. Succeeding at this level is just as reliant on mental health and mental preparation. That is why Andy Murray, even as the best player in the world, works with coaches to help him stay there.

Leaders in business need to attend to their own inner game in the same way. The talent and ability displayed throughout their career may be what got them to the top, but it may not be enough to keep them there.  Finding a skilled coach who can work with them on areas like mental strength, resilience and,  yes, vulnerability are likely to make the difference between thriving as opposed to only just surviving at the top.


But, rather than wait until they reach the top before doing something about it, aspiring leaders can put in place now the foundations that will serve them well when they get there.

1. Regularly monitor your health Just as a top tennis player needs to be in peak physical condition, you cannot give of your best without taking care of yourself.

2. Be mindful of your emotional health and whether it is having an impact on your performance, decision-making, or how you communicate with direct reports. Issues in this area can often creep up on us without us being aware of it.

3. Establish links with other leaders in your network (outside of your immediate company or industry) and nurture friendships now. These relationships will be invaluable when you reach the top.

4. Build de-stressing routines into your life now, before demands become even greater. These might be physical activities, music, art etc.  Work out what works for you and make sure there is always room for it in your busy schedule.

5. Get a Coach.  A coach may well be the best investment you will ever make in your entire career. Not only will you discover and unleash your own strengths, qualities and potential, you will also have the opportunity to establish invaluable, self-affirming, ‘inner-game’ techniques that will serve you throughout your career.

If you would like to find out more about what Leadership Coaching can do for you, simply drop me your contact details on the Contact Us page and I will get back to you as soon as possible.



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