It’s lonely at the top

Sh*t that isn’t true

Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley


It’s interesting to discover what people have found to be true about life and leadership, but it’s fascinating to hear what they’ve found to be false. In the “sh*t that isn’t true” blog we explore cultural clichés and lessons you should “unlearn” on Day One.

I liked your talk, but…

Late last year, an email popped into my inbox with the subject line “TED Talk”. That’s not entirely unusual, but it’s almost always in reference to my 2010 TEDx talk. This time however the sender wanted to discuss a talk I’d delivered a few years later at TEDxAnchorage. Turns out that while he had enjoyed the talk a great deal, his almost 30 years of experience as a university president led him to believe there were a few things I hadn’t addressed adequately, and he wondered if I’d be open to starting a dialogue.

One email turned into two, then three, and finally Bill Robinson and I connected on the phone. Over the course of our long call, it became clear we agreed on far more than we didn’t when it came to leadership, and he was gracious enough to share his thoughts on some “sh*t that isn’t true”.

Bill Robinson, President Emeritus, Whitworth University

I’m not sure why they chose me

“I find myself thinking back to the January of 1987,” Bill began. “I went to a conference for new presidents. I had been named President of a college in the midwest. I was 36 years old, I was too young for the job, I didn’t have enough experience. There was a lot of stuff I didn’t know. I’m not sure why they chose me, but I found myself the president of this college!”

Bill laughed and continued. “We meet with a guru. The guy who is supposed to be the number one authority on how to be a college president.”

I could almost hear Bill shaking his head on the other end of the line.

“One of the things he told us was this:

‘You know, it’s lonely at the top and you just have to accept that. Because when you step into the presidency, you step onto a pedestal. You have to protect your position on that pedestal. There will be people who try to remove you from the pedestal, but you can’t let yourself be disempowered by stepping off the pedestal.’”

“And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘really? It’s going to be lonely for me at the top?’” Bill said. “I thought ‘you know, I bet I can actually have friends within the organization where I worked, because if I don’t I’m going to suffocate.’”

Leading from the Middle

It seems that in Bill’s case, the guru was indeed off base.

“For the the next 24 years of being a college president, I had wonderful friendships with the people who were part of the organization,” he pointed out. “The key is that our relationships were differentiated. When we were doing non-business related things, there was no hierarchical or status difference. When we’re doing business, they have their job and I have my job, so we would differentiate between the two scenarios and act accordingly.”

“But this idea that it’s lonely at the top I think encourages leaders — position holders — to allow distance between them and those they lead,” Bill continued. “Between them and their customers, between them and the people that they are hoping to inspire.”

Bill created a term for his commitment to “getting off the pedestal” and forging real relationships with those he worked with: leading from the middle. For years he would invite the maintenance staff to his home for dinner and to offer feedback, and each year he’d aim to point out the suggestions they had implemented from the year before. He’d make a point of walking around campus and asking staff at all levels, “when was the last time you had to say no when you wanted to say yes? How can we fix that?”

“It’s actually the title for this first book I wrote on leadership: Leading From the Middle,” pointed out Bill.

“That’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to be right in the middle of the people, because that’s the type of leadership I felt was needed. It has led me to realize that it’s lonely at the top only if you allow it to be. Only if you keep it lonely.”

Trading Discomfort for Disaster

I agreed with Bill, but there was something I wanted to know.

“Look,” I said. “I believe that behind every piece of advice people give there is a fear. What you’re actually saying when you give advice is, ‘here’s how to deal with that fear.’ What do you think is the fear that drove that guru to tell you ‘it’s lonely at the top’ and that you needed to protect your position on the pedestal?”

“When someone says it’s lonely at the top, their fear is that they will get into a situation where they have a friendship or social relationship and…they’ll have to say no or disappoint someone,” replied Bill. “I think that’s the fear, but what’s interesting to me is that fear is a small and often unreal fear.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Look,” said Bill. “If I’m not with my people, if I don’t know my people, if I’m not one of the people I’ve been asked to lead, that may protect me from these small discomforts but will also position me to make decisions where I don’t know how people will be impacted by those decisions. That’s something you really should be afraid of.”

“So we distance ourselves as leaders to try to avoid interpersonal discomfort, and in doing so plant the seeds for disaster?” I asked.

“Exactly,” replied Bill. “Our effort to avoid small fears ends up creating things that truly are worth fearing. But if we would move toward our fears and say ‘okay, let’s unpack this, let’s understand this’, I think it would help us avoid situations where the fear is both big and real.”

Trust and Accountability

I remember reading Patrick Lenionci’s remarkable books, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars”, and being introduced to two core values present in the highest functioning teams: vulnerability-based trust and mutual accountability.

Vulnerability-based trust is the concept that trust is only truly built between individuals when they’re confident they can be open about their fears and shortcomings, without those things being used against them. The idea is that you can put all of your psychic energy into only one of two things: doing a great job, or trying to protect yourself from attack. The guru who told Bill and his fellow freshmen presidents that they had to “protect themselves” and the fictional pedestal upon which they stood was encouraging them to shut the door on that trust.

Mutual accountability exists when an organization creates clear standards for performance and behaviour, and then each and every member of the organization commits to holding each other accountable to meet those standards. The problem is we often don’t hold people accountable for their behaviour because we care about them personally, and we don’t want to damage the relationships we’ve built.

The problem is, every time you let someone you work with fail to live up to standards that have been set, you lose a little respect for them. Lencioni points out that all too often we condemn ourselves to the slow deterioration of our respect for each other by refusing to have uncomfortable conversations. We let the fear of discomfort keep us from keeping our relationships strong. In some cases, especially for those in leadership roles, we let that fear keep us from forming key relationships at all.

At a recent conference, I heard a speaker named Mike Robbins point out that “the biggest obstacle to better relationships in your life is a series of sweaty-palmed, uncomfortable, ten-minute conversations.” The fact relationships will be challenging in leadership isn’t a reason to avoid them, but rather recognize the importance of forming them on the key values of honesty, openness and vulnerability.

And none of that’s possible from a pedestal. Hop down and get in the middle.

Bill Robinson Bio

Bill Robinson is president emeritus of Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. He served as Whitworth’s 17th president, from 1993 to 2010, after serving as president of Manchester University, in Indiana, from 1986 to 1993. Currently, his work-life consists of speaking, consulting and writing. He serves as board chair of Princeton Theological Seminary, and sits on the boards of the Stewardship Foundation and the Voya Educators Advisory Board. In 2010, a second edition of Robinson’s book Leading People from the Middle: The Universal Mission of Mind and Heart was released. In February, 2009, Incarnate Leadership, was published by Zondervan (Harper Collins).



Drew Dudley
Drew Dudley

Founder & Chief Catalyst of Day One Leadership. West Wing junkie. Collector of penguins. Did that TED talk on lollipops.