The Lonely CEO

The Lonely CEO

“Many senior executives say the biggest problem they face is not having someone to talk to about their business”. Bill George, author of Authentic Leadership and True North

CEO’s are lonely? It may sound counterintuitive because leaders spend most of their workdays meeting with people. Even so, loneliness affects many CEO’s.

Loneliness, according to Wikipedia is “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way”. An RHR International 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey™ found that the “intensity of the CEO’s job, coupled with the scarcity of peers to confide in, creates potentially dangerous feelings of isolation among chief executives. Fifty percent of all CEOs report experiencing loneliness in the role.”

Causes of CEO Loneliness

A few CEO’s explain why they feel lonely:

  • “I carry a burden that no one else understands.”
  • “None of my family or friends are CEO’s. I don’t have anyone to talk to.”
  • “I must appear confident, so I hide my vulnerability. The more I do, the lonelier I am.”
  • “There’s a lot of stuff I want to talk about, but it’s not appropriate to discuss- not even with my executive team.”
  • “Hundreds or thousands of people depend on the choices I make. No one else wears my shoes.”
  • “Sometimes I need to make a decision and can’t include others. Its stressful because I am a collaborative leader.”
  • “I make significant strategic decisions that employees may not understand, even when I share my rationale.”
  • “If a CEO wants for accolades, he/she should find another job or grow a thicker skin.  Others look to me for solutions to their problems.  While I involve others, when I can, I am 100% responsible for decisions.”
  • “ Often, I cannot show my true feelings.  I set the emotional tone for my organization.  Optimism is contagious, just like pessimism.  I portray optimism even when I don’t feel it.”

Loneliness Has Consequences

Brene Brown says, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”

Executive loneliness and isolation are not only harmful to a leader’s well-being, but they can damage the business.

  • RHR’s survey also found that 61 percent of CEO’s surveyed believe that the isolation hinders their job performance.
  • In an HBR article, the authors found an association between loneliness, exhaustion, stress, depression, dementia, cardiovascular disease, sleep deprivation, depressed immunity and strokes. A 2015 study from Brigham Young University called loneliness equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

How CEO’s Manage Loneliness

Loneliness can cause people to feel empty and unwanted. It triggers withdrawal and isolation. To counteract its impact, here a few steps that you can take:

  • (Yes, this a not-so-shameless plug:) Join Vistage. It provides a safe place to discuss your most vulnerable issues, both business and personal. One of my members says, “Being in a peer group where people genuinely care about me is incredibly helpful.  My trusted peers give me feedback that virtually no one else can, or will, provide.  I gain new perspectives and receive insights into my blind spots.”
  • As much as possible, involve employees in problem solving. For example, one of my members established a system of problem solving and shared understanding. He meets weekly with a cross-functional team where they discuss company-wide issues, resources, priorities, and a 3-year plan.
  • Be appropriately vulnerable and share what you can.
  • Ask for feedback.
  • Develop a personal network with other leaders in similar roles.

It can be lonely at the top. Instead of letting it compromise your health and effectiveness, take some steps you need to overcome it.

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