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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

The Loneliness of the Chief Executive


It’s often said that being a CEO is a lonely job.  And indeed, research carried out by the School for CEOs confirms this.  According to one prominent Chief Executive, “People underestimate the human dynamics of the situation – whether it be loneliness or the reality that, if you screw up, there’s nobody to help.”  Being the boss is different.  The top job offers no hiding place.

Here’s another CEO comment from the same research: “The lack of someone above you in the pecking order to get a final bounce-off for an idea was the biggest single thing that struck me [when I became Chief Executive].  Suddenly you’re sitting in an office and you’re very lonely.”  A CEO has to make the decisions – if they don’t, everyone will notice and they’ll be toast.

And: “You need to have a spectacularly robust ego because it can be a very lonely place.”  Chief Executives tend to be confident people, all right, but there are plenty of occasions when, inside, they question whether they’ve chosen the right answer.

Broadly, we’re tribal animals.  The Chief Executive is under intense scrutiny from all sides.  Getting to the top is a very competitive process and staying there is similarly intense.  All sorts of interests and agendas are embodied in the decisions the CEO takes: his/her team members compete for attention, the Chairman wants to keep her job while having a strong influence on events, Board members want to burnish their reputations.  Outside the business, investors want evidence they’ve backed the right horse while the media look for heroes to build up (and villains to tear down).  Just as for Akela, the leader of the wolfpack in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, staying in the top job requires constant focus, drive, energy and attention.

A good CEO will have humility – but this requires, by definition, him/her to show vulnerability.  And this in turn requires great confidence.  Despite their success in rising up the pecking order, many Chief Executives don’t feel as confident as they look.  They often have great difficulty with “the humility thing”, to the detriment of their business and career.

All this means that the CEO can find trustworthy advice and support hard to locate.  His/her Chair is there to help, but can only offer one view.  To say the least, it can feel dangerous to bare your soul to someone whose most important role is to decide whether to sack you!  Similarly, Non-Executive Directors come with their own agendas.  The Finance Director should be the CEO’s closest partner in the business, but equally the FD is a colleague to manage and lead as well as someone to confide in.

Some Chief Executives seek out external help.  Many choose a coach, a professionally trained individual skilled at asking the right questions to help the CEO explore issues and strip away layers of denial and emotion.  Some use a mentor, an experienced business leader who has seen it all before and can offer advice from the perspective of someone who has navigated the bear traps already.  And some attend external education programmes, often run by business schools, to help them expand their horizons, hear new ideas and, not least, expand their networks.

Loneliness is an inevitable facet of leadership.  The best Chief Executives recognise this manage their feelings proactively.  The very best make it look easy.

© Patrick Macdonald 2015

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