The Lonely Summit: Normalising Leadership Support as a Key to Success

Being at the ‘top’ of any organisation is a lonely position. Earning the title of ‘CEO’ or ‘COO’ is not synonymous with knowing it all. Leaders of all organisations – from large enterprise CEOs to startup founders – face difficulties and unknowns like any human being. There’s the persistent responsibility to energise others, which understandably and consequently results in these individuals losing sight of themselves.

Despite valiant, well-intended efforts, the truth is that running a company is not a one-person job, nor was it ever meant to be. While it may seem trite, the answer is simple: these individuals need support, collaboration, and mentorship to not only do the job to the best of their abilities, but to give the business the best chance at succeeding.   

More often than not, a person who sets out to start a business, or has spent years of their career working to reach the executive level, has built an expansive network of peers and colleagues along the way. This community likely offers a wealth of expertise spanning across countless subjects – it would be a waste to not develop these relationships with the goal of identifying a handful of individuals that can serve as thought partners and safe harbours in difficult times.

Be clear and intentional with what you’re asking for in order to determine the best source of information. What do you actually need? Be judicious about who you ask for help – is this person going to give you good information? Is this person going to give you good strategy advice? Whether seeking information to better the business, customer or new hire introductions, or strategy advice, sometimes the best answers lie within the experience of those around you, and are not meant to be determined alone.

It’s healthy and beneficial to have trusted advisors outside of the organisation, but it’s equally as important to build a functioning team. The various team players, particularly in the ethos of any company, are essential ingredients that need to be carefully selected. The data have proven time and time again that diverse teams are more productive, innovative, and profitable, and moreover, often more attractive to a potential investor.

Having a network of people you can trust, whether coworkers or outside of the organisation, is essential to support areas where personal expertise is low. When there’s a foundation of trust, it eases some of the discomfort that comes with vulnerability. From 30,000 feet, executives seem incredibly self-assured, strong, confident, and motivated, but not embracing the need for support can be a massive pitfall for the organisation. A successful company needs an environment that safely promotes the discussion of challenges and vulnerabilities. And it’s often up to the head of the organisation to set that example.

Executives who have never been in a CEO or founder role might not have a realistic perspective on the job, and instead feel compelled to exaggerate here and there to ensure everything looks flawless on the surface, leading to over-promising and under-delivering. Leaders have to balance positivity with forward thinking, without muting the harsh realities of what’s required to reach desired milestones and goals, which can feel like an impossible task at times given the pressures of societal, social, investor, and stakeholder expectations, not to mention the influence of ego that comes with the role.

A lot of this comes down to personal growth and development. Just because a person is named CEO, or receives an initial investment to start a new business venture, certainly does not imply they have reached the pinnacle of human potential. Everyone has areas in which they can improve, grow, and learn. A trusted network can be endlessly valuable in this capacity, as they offer new insights and information, but can also provide essential feedback and challenge assumptions or decisions when necessary. Don’t underestimate the significance of personal reflection, which can be an independent exercise, or something that warrants partnership from an executive coach or community of fellow entrepreneurs and CEOs.

It’s long past time to lower the drawbridge and let people into the most vulnerable corners of the leadership experience, while ensuring a psychologically safe environment. This technological world has driven some to hide imperfections and missteps and promote only the highlight reels of life. It’s not sustainable nor practical, especially in the world of business. For the sake of the organisation, and our collective mental health and sanity, it’s time to challenge these assumptions and learn to confidently lean on peers, teams, and networks in a way that courageously exercises vulnerability, while also promising strength and growth for the business – and the individual.