Core skills to help CEOs combat loneliness and isolation

The Myth of CEO Invulnerability

The Myth of CEO Invulnerability: Visibility and Power Leads to Loneliness for Chief Executive Officers (CEOs)

Part I: Leadership power can change relationship dynamics
Part II.a: The emotional labor of visibility
Part II.b: Why CEOs are vulnerable to Imposter Syndrome
Part III: The Value of having a leadership style that leads to good intel
Part IV: Core skills to help CEOs combat loneliness and isolation

The power and prestige of the corporate CEO position is a heady one – akin to the stardom of famed actors, musicians and athletes. The position, like being at the top of the charts, signals the pinnacle of success, and often comes with wealth and privilege.
Yet those who attain rarefied heights also know that along with the perks comes the price. CEOs face unique challenges, not the least of which is significant loneliness. Depending on a CEO’s individual makeup, that loneliness may be tolerated, or take an invisible toll. A Harvard Business Review article reported that 50% of the CEOs they studied reported feeling lonely, and 60% admitted that they believed their loneliness negatively impacted their performance.

These numbers may be deflated, either by CEOs that don’t know that they sometimes or often feel lonely; or who won’t admit it.

Core Skills to Help CEOs Combat Loneliness and Isolation

The Importance of Finding Ways of Being Yourself

People feel isolated when they don’t feel connected to their core selves, or recognized as their authentic selves by people who are important to them. Many CEOs say that having no one they can talk to openly, especially about the challenges on the job, is the hardest part of their job. One solution is to find a trusted advisor or coach who is bound by confidentiality and who doesn’t have stakes in the company. Additionally, there is more room than you may realize to be yourself in relationships, even in short encounters, that can relieve the sense of isolation.

Make a Space to Be Real

Keeping in mind the need to compartmentalize certain channels of information with different stakeholders, it is still important to find and make space to be real. We are talking about style, not just content. It takes an effort to relax and seek connections with people, even when you can’t be completely frank about everything with them. However, this is an important social skill even if you’re not a CEO. Colleen was surprised and concerned to hear that a valued member of her leadership team, Adam, was thinking about an exit from the company. Colleen was immediately concerned about the impact to a number of critical initiatives. Moreover, she worried about how it would affect Zeke, another critical member of her team. Adam and Zeke had come together from a different company and clearly functioned best as a team. Losing Adam would be terrible; losing both Adam and Zeke would be catastrophic, she felt.

Colleen decided to give Adam some time without mentioning it to anyone. However, to her own coach Colleen unloaded all her concerns and feelings, including a bevy of unproductive speculations about why Adam was doing this. Most critically Colleen was able to display to her coach the personal, unfiltered side to herself that would not have served no purpose outside of that context. Among other things, Colleen felt no small degree of anger at Adam and could not help taking his potential departure personally. She recognized her feelings were to some extent irrational, but being able to air them without fear of consequences allowed her to return to a more balanced position quite quickly. It isn’t necessary to know why Colleen felt so strongly. Most likely, the situation triggered some kind of memory or personal association not related to Adam himself. What’s important is that being able to “clear the cache” of the emotional side of her reactions to Adam, she was able to bring a fuller capacity to understand the complexity of the situation and to generate potential solutions. When she later saw Zeke, she was able to work with him without letting her concerns about Adam interfere.

Importance of Valuing and Being Connected to Your Emotions

Emotions enhance your decision-making skills. Being disconnected from your own emotions can lead to an inability to read emotional cues in customers, your team, and other stakeholders, all of whom make decisions largely based on emotions. This is partly what we mean by emotional intelligence. But emotional intelligence doesn’t just mean having, and reading, your own and others’ emotions.

Rather, emotional intelligence is deeper and more complex. As humans we evolved a larger problem-solving and analyzing brain than other species, called the neocortex. We also evolved an extensively networked aspect of our brains to process emotions, to help us navigate the complex world of other people, environmental threats, opportunities, and to integrate all this complex information rapidly.

Diminishing or cutting off access to one’s emotions or restricting the back-and-forth flow of emotional communication is akin to constricting a major blood vessel in the body. It exacts a large toll on one’s capacity for vitality and functioning. Cutting yourself off from your emotions wreaks havoc in your personal and professional life. CEOs who are connected to their emotions are vastly better prepared to deal with the pressure and complexity of their work.

Importance of Taking Care of Your Personal Life and Well-Being

We all know that being busy and in demand has its own momentum – all the more so when your actions and decisions affect so many people. Companies need their CEOs to have be better and wiser at prioritizing than anyone else, yet CEOs are particularly vulnerable to being bad at this. This is particularly the case with prioritizing personal well-being, health, and relationships. To be clear, as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has put it, work and home should not be viewed as zero-sum priorities. It’s not as if there’s a correct formula for “balance,” or that balance is a geographical or time-based solution. For example, taking time to relax and laugh at work, to be mindful and connected to self and others, can be as nourishing to well-being as taking time away from work. That said, for many CEOs dedicating time and energy to family, personal happiness and growth, not to mention physical health, requires a deliberate intention and ongoing commitment.

Being in charge, having power, privilege and ultimate responsibility can be thrilling to some CEOs and daunting to others, or a mix of both. Whether leading the charge of intensity or reluctantly keeping pace, there is little doubt that most CEOs have intensely busy lives. But what are they busy with?

This is a very important question that many CEOs may profitably explore with their executive coaches. However in this discussion the question has to do with the balance of the obligations of work versus the frequently deprioritized obligations of personal well-being, including personal health and relationships. Like deployed combat soldiers there is often the assumption that the mission must come first and the mission must be accomplished before personal needs can be attended to. For some CEOs it isn’t even a conscious orientation. They’ve slipped into prioritizing their jobs gradually – or it is part of the package of success that got them there.

No matter how or why, CEOs that fail to value their personal well-being and the quality of their relationships face dire consequences.

Part of the solution may be how success is defined, and at what phase of a company or CEO’s life cycle. During a startup phase or other critical milestones such as an IPO, success has clear definitions and deadlines and requires a good deal of driving and pushing. But taking for granted that business success factors are important metrics, not every CEO takes the time to think about what else might be important to their well-being.

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By age 48, Sissy had been in the Army, lived abroad working for a global management consultancy, and made a success of starting and selling her own business. (All case vignettes and examples in this article are composite sketches of different clients, identities and issues. Names and details are fictional.) Recently she had started a new consulting company specializing in helping startups scale up their business. She knew she had been successful at everything she had tried, but she found herself feeling more empty and less passionately engaged than customary. Twice divorced and both kids in college, Sissy wondered what mistakes she had made in terms of her life priorities. She had done her best as parent and businesswoman, and while clearly a valuable executive, she felt something was missing. As she had no clear problems pertaining to her job performance, Sissy turned to a private coach to explore how she could improve work-life balance, or otherwise address her vague ennui. From these conversations Sissy discovered that one personal interest that stirred her passion was helping veterans find their way into gainful employment once they left the Service – something she herself had had no problem doing. Her own deceased father had been an injured Army veteran whose depression and struggle with trauma had put a stamp on her own family’s life, she remembered, but something she had never really talked about with anyone. Sissy began exploring community venues where she could help out vets. Given her own Army background and her empathy she had no trouble gaining their trust, and found being with vets and helping them oddly fulfilling. Over time she worked with her own company to craft a program to hire and train vets, a source of positive feelings and motivation for everyone who was involved. Soon the idea of respecting and leveraging disabilities in general and veterans in particular was incorporated into the mission and values of the budding organization. This became an important aspect of the company’s identity and a source of drawing in and retaining talent.

What’s the Solution to CEO Isolation?

Despite the built-in potential for loneliness in the CEO position, it is still possible to build strong relationships, strive for authenticity, and do your job well. Here are some tips to help:

  • Pay diligent and regular attention to work-life balance and work to stay connected with your emotions
  • Create a trusted community you can turn to for support, whether it is your Leadership Team, members of your Board, or others.
  • Keep open channels for appropriate feedback so you don’t shut yourself out of information circles
  • Form or join formal and informal networks with other CEOs
  • Find mentors and trusted advisors to meet with regularly
  • Learn conflict resolution skills and other skills that help you improve the quality of relationships around you, not only you with them, but they with each other.
  • Take care of your spirit and heart as well as your hands and mind.
  • Consider working with an executive coach or external trusted advisor.