Werner Spies
20 Nov. 2020

Why is it lonely at the top? Creating space for self-managed leadership

‘It’s lonely at the top’ is a common saying amongst leaders. In an old-style organisational structure – which is hierarchical with a real “top” then yes, leadership can be very lonely. I believe however there is a different pathway we can take to lead – and lead well with support from our teams.

In newer network-based organisational structures, we’re seeing that loneliness is most likely just shared by more, rather than being supported by more. This is just as problematic as the old-style hierarchies. It could be that the move to ‘self-managed’, self-directed leadership models could be the answer to solving these issues – and improving our connectedness between people, teams and workplaces.

We first need to talk about the pressures of leadership

As Simon Sinek says: “It takes unbelievable courage to resist all the pressures coming from selfish outside parties; it takes unbelievable pressure to do the right thing”.

We already know that when everyone is accountable, no one is accountable. There could be numerous reasons for this, mainly driven from overwhelming pressure on leaders to be finite, such as:

  • Prioritising the short term over the long term; or
  • Prioritising the urgent over the important.

With no friends and all responsibility, for some leaders this pressure is intolerable. It leads to breakdown in communication, purpose and yes, it can make leadership very lonely.

As Sinek says, you need people in your life who love you and believe in you: “You gotta have friends…., you gotta have colleagues…, you gotta have employees… that when you just don’t have it in you, you just don’t think you can, you just don’t have it, somebody says, “ I got your back, I believe in you”.

How do we get to this ideal place of support? At 460degrees we have a very ambitious goal to become a self-managed organisation.

Towards a new self-managed model

To manage your projects, your team and yourself means zero management overhead. It means all people are self-directed. Self-managed collaborative leadership means clear accountabilities and clear responsibilities. At 460degrees, we are working towards a network-based organisational structure with unique self-managed systems and processes enabling full collaboration and transparency. We believe this will join all the dots.

In doing this, we will transform from an achievement and pluralist-based structure to an evolutionary self-managed culture: unlocking wholeness and enabling evolutionary purpose.

So, you’re saying this means that we as leaders really only have two choices: one – make peace with loneliness or two – become a socialite?

I say absolutely not.

As leaders, a friend, a colleague, an employee is all we need. It is also so important as we gain more leadership experience for our own personal mentors to guide us through our journey, and business coaches to help us through short-term hurdles. 460degrees has already embraced a network-based organisational structure with cultural values of Get Connected, Work Collaboratively, Become Versatile and Act Self-directed. This implies our leaders have no reason to be lonely.

Loneliness then purely becomes a warning sign for a lack of connectedness and collaboration, and in fact, from a network-based point of view, a sign of diminishing accountability and ultimately a lack of leadership or self-management.

How do we find our way to greater connectedness?

With all the platforms and tools available online, surely it cannot be that hard to get and remain connected, and more importantly, to work collaboratively. Well, I am surprised every day at how little people connect. And why is this? Very simple: social media. As well as social media facilitates connection, being connected on social media does not mean you are connected.

This is the biggest block for the development of modern-aged leaders. Nothing comes to high-touch: real connections face-to-face over coffee or in the workplace. So, what is the next best thing? I believe virtual meetings, closely followed by the good old ‘pick up the phone’ is the simplest solution – and the best. And this, strangely enough, is the block that prevents many managers developing into great modern leaders. People are so happy to express opinions via email or social media, but they do not have the confidence to express this in person, over the phone or in a virtual meeting. They are not confident in their own ability to express themselves and even may doubt their own opinion and don’t like being challenged. To me, this is simply bad leadership. But – we all experience this every day.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 460degrees implemented numerous virtual forums, virtual coffees and virtual drinks to replace our in-person catch-ups. These are important initiatives and for any leader, or wannabe leader, it is key to be visible, in person or at least in “voice”.

All it takes to be a strong leader, a connected leader, is to pick up the phone and talk. If you can do this, you should never feel lonely.

More insights from Werner Spies


Do I follow my dreams or stick with what I’m good at?

We’ve all heard that saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” On the other hand, there’s that equally wise adage, “Play to your strengths”. In a perfect world these two things would be one and the same.

Werner Spies | 12 Jul. 2023

Creating a Culture to Attract & Retain Top Talent

Werner Spies recently featured on the Evolution Exchange podcast discussing how to attract and retain talent.

Werner Spies | 24 May. 2022

How to save Australia’s Professional Services

Covid-19 has brought a wave of economic destruction to many businesses, but it’s not the bottom line, it’s the people who work for – or used to work for – organisations, that are suffering.

Werner Spies | 21 Jul. 2020

6clicks presents: Innovators

6Clicks sat down with 460degrees Managing Director Werner Spies to find out what it takes to become a renowned innovator in global business transformation.

Werner Spies | 07 Jun. 2020