With the new US president having begun his administration, carrying so many of our hopes for change and improvement, it is easy to forget how lonely the role can be.

Oliver Stone's absorbing recent biopic of George W Bush, W, is a sombre and thought provoking reminder.

In spite of the great care taken to present an even handed portrait, Mr Bush appears in this film as a cartoonish character: talking while simultaneously munching unattractively on nasty looking sandwiches and blithely ignorant of any but the most naive view of the catastrophic events he was unleashing.

The man himself seems to be beyond parody but the film touchingly exposes what must surely have been his real-life loneliness.

You do not need to have the most challenging leadership role in the world to know what such loneliness is like. The more senior the role, the greater the risk of isolation.

In W, as the war in Iraq goes so disastrously wrong, Josh Brolin, who plays the president, confronts his now bewilderingly furrowed forehead in a mirror and wonders aloud who will understand how he feels.

A familiar isolation

The answer is probably "no one". This film demonstrates perfectly the mixture of obsequiousness, subtle undermining and genuine respect for the office - if not necessarily for the incumbent - that will be familiar to any chief executive.

One of the reasons for the success of executive coaching must surely be that it offers a place where thoughts that would otherwise linger in the mind to brood and grow may at least be aired; and also a place where feedback that is widely shared behind the person's back may be stated and explored.

The reason for this isolation seems to be that as followers we desperately need separation from our leaders at the same time as we capriciously crave their approval and fear their wrath. We don't really want to see the human being behind the mask. It is easier to believe the myths.

You can observe this in the way any celebrity is first built up by the media, encouraging projection of all the positive characteristics we need to see in a public figure, only to have the fragile edifice crash down as the person makes an error and is shown to be human after all.

When the celeb has believed in their own mythology, their fall is even more painful.

I am often asked in hushed tones for help on that neglected topic, "managing upwards".

Actually, it is simple. Get to know your boss. Seek out the real person. Stop thinking in comic-strip terms. Accept that flaws are inevitable along with strengths. Offer grounded support without being sycophantic. Challenge respectfully but persistently. Learn the difference between feedback and criticism - and offer feedback generously.

Could such tactics have saved the Bush presidency from ignominy? Who can say, but it seems most unlikely that they were ever tried. We have to hope that Barack Obama has people around him who are prepared to take a different path.