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I work with many successful and powerful people. At first, it’s easy to assume that, because they’ve accomplished the level of success they have, they’re happy. But, many are not.

Does it really have to be lonely at the top?

It’s lonely at the top for many leaders. I’ve observed this among leaders in the corporate, non-profit, faith, and political sectors. Leaders often live people-filled, yet isolated, lives.

Many “successful” leaders have sacrificed their families to get to the top. It’s common for leaders to distance themselves from meaningful, transparent, authentic friendships. Most no longer believe they need others to help them grow and flourish, professionally and personally.

That’s a version of success I don’t want. If you agree, keep reading.


I didn’t grow up around grandfathers. One died when I was young, the other lived far away. Once while visiting my grandparents, we had a big, Catholic family get-together. Being welcomed into this large group of people, many of whom I didn’t know well, felt like real wealth. I remember thinking that, when I’m 80, it’ll matter what I’ve accomplished in life. However, it will matter exponentially more whether I’m surrounded by people I love or whether I’m alone.

I’m married now with three children and we’re super busy. After working all day, we come home to our personal riptide of cooking, cleaning, spending time with kids, keeping kids from killing each other, getting kids ready for bed, and then (early and exhausted) “crashing” into bed ourselves.

But, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m building something. I’m building my family and my family is building me.

I don’t invest in my family because of my workplace benefits. I invest in them because they’re worth it. And, investing in my family has brought a tremendous amount of professional benefit. Stability and encouragement from home help propel me into larger endeavors.

Instead of working to fill a hole created by an empty home life, I’m able to build on the foundation of a stable home life.

Here’s what I’ve found: The people I know who are successful, happy, or satisfied are people who prioritized their families. And, even though less was given to work, paradoxically, they often accomplished more.

If you have a family, prioritize it. Build it. Nurture it. It will give you “whole-life” benefits.

Peers and friends

At a recent lunch with a high-profile leader in our community, we were catching up and the conversation turned personal. I asked him who he spent time with and who his friends were. He replied that he spent time with family, but didn’t have friends that he spent time with.

All of his non-family relationships were characterized by his role as giver, leader, or influencer. And, while that seems noble or self-sacrificial, it isn’t.

It’s a way to hide.

True friends and peer relationships are a blessing; because we can be open without fear of judgment. They support us through challenges. They can be the “iron that sharpens iron.”

Leaders frequently fall victim to the illusion: “I need to have it together.” Or, “I can’t trust anyone.” “Everyone wants something from me.” And, “I can’t afford to show weakness or uncertainty.”

It’s a Machiavellian law of power that suggests a leader needs to isolate and maintain distance in relationships. And that law comes with a high maintenance bill. It’s costly.

These ideas are based on the fear that others cannot be trusted to have our best interests in mind. Interestingly, the more we are vulnerable and open up to others, the more likely we’ll discover we can trust others. And this experience actually makes us more empathetic, emotionally intelligent leaders.

Sure, there’s competition out there. Some grow jealous. Some are needy. And some can’t be trusted. But we rob ourselves, do others a disservice, and no longer engage in a clear-eyed picture of the world when we believe honest friendships are no longer possible for us.

How do you build friendships? People become friends with friendly people. People offer trust to people who extend trust. People become vulnerable when others are vulnerable.

Who are people whom you respect that you might build a friendship with? What are some easy ways that you can begin to spend time together? What are some small ways that you can begin building trust? What challenges are you facing that you might be able to share?

Mentors and coaches

Being involved in athletics and fitness my whole life, I’ve observed there are two types of people that hire coaches or trainers: severely out-of-shape people who need the investment to motivate them to work out, and high-level competitors who work out; but want superior results. People content in the middle don’t hire trainers.

And so it is with leadership mentoring and coaching.

I’ve been fortunate to have mentors in my life since I was a teenager. But, it wasn’t until my 30’s that I learned how to intentionally pursue mentoring relationships. I’ve discovered great value in hiring coaches.

Mentoring and coaching are similar; but let’s define terms: In most cases mentoring is an affinity-based, fairly informal relationship where the mentor gives permission for the mentee to seek them out for input and advice. Some people pay for mentoring; however, most often, it’s organic.

Coaching is usually more structured and is almost always a paid service. Where mentoring tends to be “responsive” to the needs and questions of the “mentee,” coaching is more driven by the coach. The coach provides a more active structure that helps someone grow, navigate a challenge, or take advantage of an opportunity.

Gaining a mentor is actually easy to do. Follow these steps:

  1. Call someone you admire. Ask them a specific question and offer to buy them lunch.
  2. Don’t use the word “mentor.” It can be overwhelming.
  3. If the lunch conversation goes well, ask to meet again.
  4. Call them again, three to six months later, with another great question and another lunch invitation.

Done! Congratulations! You have a mentor.

Look for a good coach who has successfully coached others facing similar situations or challenges.

  • Ask your friends, look online, or contact me.
  • Interview several coaches. Many good coaches offer phone or video conference services.
  • Be clear on what you want to achieve and what makes that important to you. Prospective coaches should ask you about this upfront. You should sense that this is important to them, as well. If not, keep looking.
  • “Cut and paste” coaching programs are fine only if they’re coaching to a specific skill set. All other leadership coaching should be able to be tailored to you. If your prospective coach can’t adjust to your needs, you might want to look around.

I get so much value out of coaching that, in any given year, I work with two to three different coaches. Each targets different areas of my life, professionally or personally. Some teach me new things. Some help me grow in areas I find to be challenging. Some encourage and some kick my butt. I’m growing in areas where I couldn’t before.

What is one area of your life, personally or professionally, you’d like to ensure growth in, in the next six months? What would it mean to experience a breakthrough or progress in that area? Who will you contact to mentor or coach you?

Investing in these three relationships allows a leader to have a strong foundation in life.

In fact, I find that the leaders who invest the most in these three areas are often those who experience the quickest, and most sustained, success in business. However, even if they don’t—they’re happy people.