I’ve often received calls and emails from former business students of mine who, despite being at a pinnacle of career or financial success, have expressed profound loneliness and despair – the kinds of feelings that might lead to tragedies like the recent suicides of two Swiss executives.
Many young leaders and CEOs say that power and influence come at a steep cost. The more success these people find, the more they feel like targets. It can seem like everyone wants something from them, and even acts of kindness and generosity from others seemed like veiled attempts at manipulation.
So, some leaders gradually lean away from people, creating a self-imposed detachment. In this isolation, they come to feel that they have no one to share their problems with — and at the same time, it makes them seem unapproachable to others. They drift deeper into themselves, and end up far away from the people in their lives.
It’s not only leaders and executives who can come to feel this way. As we know, stress is epidemic in workplaces everywhere. The more of it we face, the greater danger there is of losing touch with the people and values that are important to us. There are always moments of isolation, but by keeping the following ideas in mind, you’ll be better equipped to address them, or avoid them:
1. Get outside – of your head, and your office: The more you stay in one place, both mentally and physically, the more one-sided the world starts to look. That’s when priorities get warped. But high-energy, focused people can often replace one kind of engaging activity with another. Read great novels. Learn to fly-fish (that takes a lot of concentration, I’m told). Try to develop an exercise plan, especially one that takes you out of doors. Richard Branson pilots hot air balloons, Larry Ellison sails. Sergey Brin even learned the trapeze. Think of recreation as “re-creation” of your energy in a different venue.
2. Set Boundaries and stick to them: People who succeed are too often willing to subordinate everything in their lives to their quest for the top job. But once you get started on that path, it’s hard to slow down. So you have to set boundaries. Early in my career, I got a Sunday morning phone call from my boss and mentor who wanted to meet with me at the office about a deal. I was flattered, but I’d already decided that Sundays would be reserved for family. He respected this limit, and I went on to become the Managing Partner of the firm, where I kept Sundays for family for 20 years.
3. Stay close to your friends and family: I tell my business school students that the pop songs aren’t lying: love can be a powerful force if you cultivate it in your family and among friends and colleagues. Love is rooted in security, in self-esteem and in self-confidence. Deeply needy people have a harder time loving – they’re busy concentrating on themselves. But building a support network will help you with your needs, and will allow you in turn to give back to others. This “other-centered” mindset has a way of helping you put your own problems in perspective.
4. Learn to trust, even if it hurts: Trust is a fundamental part of building strong relationships, and avoiding the kind of mental vacuum that makes us feel suspicious and alone. To build trust with someone, you have to believe that he or she is able to put your interests ahead of their own, and that they’ll do what they say they’re going to do. When someone violates your trust, it can be difficult to bounce back and give someone else a chance. But, having been betrayed a few times myself, I’ve learned that it’s worse to recoil in wariness than to keep trying, learning better who to trust and when to trust them. Imagine that it’s your job to be trustworthy and to help others to be the same.
5. Just give: A few months back I agreed to fly halfway across the country to be with returning special operations servicemen entering the work force. When the day arrived, I had so many other pressures and deadlines that I was regretting my commitment. How could I give up an entire day? But by mid-morning, I’d lost myself in the company and good nature of these veterans, grateful to have had a chance to spend time with them, and inspired by their sacrifices. I was also more than a little humbled by the problems they’d taken on, which made mine seem tiny in comparison. With that perspective, I breezed through a very long to-do list when I got home.
Isolation is never the answer – instead, you want to surround yourself with, and reach out to, the people around you. If you start to feel you’re getting tunnel vision from incessant pressure at work, interrupt it. Consider starting with the guidelines above to help you find meaning and connection. We often feel locked into wearisome routines in life. The trick is to find ways to break out of them as soon as you realize you’re in one.
Chairman, JetBlue Airways. Stanford Business School