Lonely at the Top / Being at the Bottom

Q.  Why is it lonely at the top?

A.  Several reasons:

  1. No one truly understands the responsibility of the role except the person holding the role.
  2. Everyone wants something from you.  It is hard to please everyone all of the time.  Just to make yourself visible to others exposes you to requests both implicit and explicit.
  3. No one else but you is responsible for whether decisions are ultimately right or wrong.
  4. Most everyone around you is more than willing to give you advice on what you should do…and then step back and let you make the decision and take the blame if something goes wrong.
  5. The requirements of keeping things confidential means that you must choose your confidantes extremely carefully.
  6. Keeping things confidential can be especially difficult and burdensome for some who like to think out loud and to bat ideas around before a decision is made.
  7. You have other people’s lives in your hands.  While some are not bothered by firing others or giving them a “window seat,” many consider that doing so without compassion and concern for their welfare is both heartless and unethical.  Those who put themselves through the wringer when making personnel moves definitely feel the loneliness of decisions that only they can make.

Q.  Is there only one person on the top?

A.  Not really.  Organizational hierarchies are nested one within another.  Some are at the summit of the entire hierarchy, but project managers, program managers, department managers and business unit leaders are also at the top of their area of responsibilities.  So they share similar burdens.  It is a matter of degree how weighty their burden is, however, when compared to the CEO.

Q.  What do you mean that it is Lonely at the Bottom?

A.  One Executive that I was coaching suddenly burst out with that expression.  He felt the weight of the entire organization on his shoulders.  He inverted the pyramid in part out of the burden that he felt, but also in the way that he viewed his role:  He supported Managers who supported Associates, who worked with Vendors and provided Value for Customers.  In his mind, he put the customers on the top of the pyramid.

But he also had the right attitude:  those leaders who exalt themselves by thinking that they have reached Olympic heights by finally making it to the top of the mountain are certainly dooming their business to mediocrity.  Getting to “the top” is only paying the entry fee for the marathon.  It still has to be run, and there’s no handing it off to others.  And this is when the pyramid gets inverted, and he who was once on top, is now on bottom.

Being at the Bottom is not about personal aggrandizement and ego-stroking.  Being at the Bottom is about putting your heart and soul into making the enterprise the best it can be, thinking about the business night and day, 24/7/52, with little let up.

The metaphor used by convention is wrong:  you aren’t at the top; you are at the bottom.  Making sure that your organization has the direction, the goals, the playbook, and the resources to succeed with your clients is your responsibility.  Your associates are counting on you to make strategic decisions about their livelihoods, as investors are counting on you to assure a good return on their money, with an increase in value over time.

This reality is the “hidden burden” that few can understand as they see the trappings of the Executive office.  Becasue they do not see it, they do not understand the pressure (nor the joys) of this challenge.  And this is why it is Lonely at the Bottom.

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