Lonely at the Top

We’ve obviously just lived through a terrible global pandemic, so I really hate to alarm anyone by saying we’re in the midst of another one. Only this time, it doesn’t spread through droplets, coughs or handshakes. It’s actually the result of an environmental design flaw that is keeping us from one another and creating what is now officially named the Loneliness Epidemic. 

The bummer news is we did this to ourselves. The good news is we can fix it. 

Feeling Lonely

While the social isolation that accompanied COVID-19 certainly exacerbated our feelings of loneliness, we actually started to see the most significant and rapid increase in this trend back in 2014. Over the past decade, there has been a significant decline in the amount of time spent with friends and an increase in solitary activities. In 2010, adults spent an average of six-and-a-half hours a week with friends, a number that has now plummeted to less than three hours a week according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey. 

And these significant changes in behavior are catching up with us. 

The U.S. Surgeon General recently named loneliness as one of the biggest public health threats in America. Loneliness and social isolation aren’t just social and emotional problems. Loneliness is actually more dangerous to our physical health and longevity than physical inactivity, obesity and smoking 14 cigarettes a day.

Loneliness affects every demographic in the United States. According to a 2021 study commissioned by Cigna, 58% of the general population report being lonely. And for the first time in our recorded history, young people are suffering from loneliness and isolation more than the traditionally vulnerable populations of the sick and elderly. 

Before we go any further, it is critical for us to understand that loneliness is not an indictment of our worthiness. On an individual level, it is our body’s way of signaling we have an unmet need for connection. On a societal level, it’s an indication that we have a design flaw on our hands. 

Value Community

A wise mentor once told me that my organization was perfectly designed to get the results it was getting. If I wanted a different outcome (I did), I needed to change the design. 

Our American culture is currently designed with primary values like independence, convenience, privacy and profits. And while none of these things is inherently wrong, they are contributing to the results of the current design: loneliness, social isolation, division and fear. 

As individuals, we have more autonomy than we realize in designing lives that prioritize community and connection. As leaders of organizations, churches and businesses, we also have an immense opportunity to design for connection. That can be done through intentional organizational design that prioritizes community. Leading by example can also help those we lead to understand their own autonomy. 

We have to go first, not just for the sake of our people (though that is real and true and good), but I believe that creating and prioritizing a committed community and support network outside of our vocational spaces is mission-critical for the mental, spiritual and physical health of leaders. 

Research conducted at Harvard has demonstrated that good relationships are the single best predictor of personal happiness, fulfillment and even physical health. It’s not an optional, fluffy pursuit. It is a key to healthy, sustainable and effective leadership for the long haul. 

Leaders need a community where they can be transparent and vulnerable without compromising their professionalism. Building and nurturing relationships with friends and peers can significantly enhance a leader’s ability to make a lasting impact.

Designed for Connection

While giving precedence to relationships may seem daunting, it’s not an insurmountable challenge. In my vocational work as a serial entrepreneur who has built global companies and communities, I’ve had the privilege to live and work across the world and observe the principles, traditions, societal norms and infrastructure that contribute to cultures that create community, connection and support. 

About 12 years ago, during the early stages of my venture-building and leadership journey, I decided to turn my own life into a bit of a social experiment by taking these observations and seeing how they might translate into my home culture in America. 

In my personal life, it’s led me to build a neighborhood community where we share property, belongings and the daily responsibilities of life. We share the joys and sorrows, the blessings and the burdens. This, of course, requires an immense amount of commitment, intentionality and the willingness to have hard and tender conversations with empathy and, occasionally, to seek reconciliation. But I have come to believe that the relationships and support we long for and desire are on the other side of discomfort. 

And in my vocational life, it’s led to me building businesses like Sseko Designs and Noonday Collection with the core value of connection. And over a decade into my “social experiment,” I can tell you this: It’s working. 

I’ve seen in real life how an intentional design can yield the results we long for: communities where the members generally feel they have the connection, support and authentic relationships they need to thrive. 

While I am by no means an expert, I am a rapid learner, a try-and-fail-and-try-againer. Here are a few practical steps I have found work to address loneliness and build meaningful connections: 

  • Go first. Don’t wait for others to initiate friendships or community building. Take the initiative by reaching out to friends, neighbors or colleagues. 
  • Share your life. Being open creates opportunities for others to do the same.
  • Pay your dues. Building strong relationships requires time and effort. Recognize that it takes approximately 200 hours of interaction to move from being strangers to intimate friends. Prioritize these relationships as you would other important endeavors in your life.
  • Develop reflective listening skills. Learning how to effectively listen and communicate during conflicts can greatly enhance your relationships. 

Vulnerable Leadership

While the temptation to believe that leaders have to lead with power, privilege and expertise is real, I’m wildly grateful for the model we have in the life and servant leadership of Jesus. Influential leadership is rooted in vulnerability and connection. 

In his darkest hours, Jesus sought the support and companionship of his friends. “And he said to them, ‘My heart is overwhelmed and crushed with grief. It feels as though I am already dying. Please stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matt. 26:38).

He was heart-wrenchingly honest about his sorrow and grief. And he tenderly and courageously asked a question that echoes in the heart of every human: “Even in my pain, will you stay here with me?” 

Vulnerable leadership, characterized by humility and honesty, involves asking for help during difficult times. It’s an act of courage and vision that can profoundly impact both personal and professional relationships. It is integral for the health and longevity of a leader and transformational for the communities we lead.