Understanding the Heartbreaker: Three Ways to Battle Loneliness in the Workplace with Tom Petty

On my Mount Rushmore of musicians, Tom Petty is a premiere figure. Besides his incredible catalogue spanning almost fifty years (this includes his first band Mudcrutch), he had an air about him that seemed to transcend cool—where other rock stars put energy into appearing “cool,” Petty just did what he wanted to do…what’s cooler than that?

Of course the truth is that you don’t achieve what Petty was able to achieve without putting energy into it. In the must-see documentary, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin’ Down a Dream, it describes how Petty progressed from being a mere member of the band to being the frontman—its the differentiation between The Heartbreakers versus Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Aside from the accolades and the tremendous ego boost, there’s a lot of pressure resulting from leading a group of (somewhat) peers. And as many leaders experience, this differentiation can lead to loneliness.

For those of us who have held leadership roles, we understand the truth behind the adage “it’s lonely at the top.” One study revealed that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role. This does not mean leaders don’t have anyone to talk to, but there are a limited number of people for whom we can confide our concerns and problems. If untreated, this leads to feelings of isolation (emotional or otherwise) that can have serious health ramifications—research directly links loneliness to increased incidence of clinical depression, increased levels of stress hormones, and compromised immune-system functioning.

From a workplace perspective, approximately 70% of CEOs who experience loneliness report that it negatively affects their performance. Several papers have found correlations between loneliness and lowered organizational commitment. A large-scale study showed a relationship between loneliness and lowered creativity. And loneliness spreads…that’s right, it’s contagious.

Before you get to this point of despair, here are three support-filled options that are Petty-tested and Petty-approved.

Utilize Advisors

In 1979, Petty had already had two hit records, however, based on his recording contract, he owed the record label more than he had earned. In an unprecedented move, he refused to allow the release of his third album, Damn the Torpedoes, until this was worked out. While making the record, Petty went so far as to hide the recordings every night so they could not be taken by the record company and he bore the cost of recording it personally, leaving him $500,000 in debt.

To accomplish this feat, Petty had to rely on attorneys, auditors, and accountants. We need a similar group of professional advisers, independent consultants, and executive coaches to help solve dilemmas and mitigate potential issues. And since these individuals do not have the self-benefiting agenda that rouses may of our direct reports, they can serve as a sounding board, providing authentic critique without working against their self interests. .

Find Your Peers

When Petty needed to feel less like a “boss,” he hung out with one of the greatest supergroups in the history of supergroups, the Traveling Wilburys. This included himself, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne George Harrison, and Roy Orbison. Similarly, we need to find our supergroup.

The neat thing [about The Traveling Wilburys] is I can view them as my friends. They’re great musicians, with so much to offer and so many things you can learn and pick from. You realize that they’re people just like you, but when you do think about it, it’s a great honor to work with them.—Tom Petty (1989)

There are a number of professional associations and peer member groups made up strictly of other leaders in the community. This gives you a chance to network/socialize with people who really understand what you are going through. They can also provide practical advice and best practices that have worked for them.

Find Times to NOT Be the Leader

In 1986, Petty was an established rock star so it was shocking when he and the Heartbreakers announced that they would be touring for a year as Bob Dylan’s backup band. The True Confessions Tour taught Petty how to be in the Heartbreakers, not just lead them. “That’s when we learned how to really be a band,” says Petty. This gave the Heartbreakers a chance to reassess their fame while working on skills that would benefits them for the next 30 years. Petty was also able to shadow someone who would become his mentor and friend.

Playing with Bob [Dylan] is pretty spontaneous and we can communicate very well. Bob said to me once, “This band is kinda like talking to one guy.” We pick up on signals real fast. And I’m really enjoying having some of the heat off. I can actually step over to the side and just play my guitar and not have to worry about it.—Tom Petty (1986)

Find situations where you are with the team, not leading the team. These experiences will enhance yours and the team’s abilities, improve communication throughout the team, and expand your perspective.

Loneliness does not have to accompany leadership, so don’t let it. You have enough on your plate without being distracted by sadness. Tom Petty was able to avoid this gloom by expanding his network of collaborators and remaining a member of the Heartbreakers, not just its frontman. If you can do the same (and you can), you’ll be a happier and ultimately more successful leader.