The emotional labor of CEO visibility

The Myth of CEO Invulnerability

On the one hand it would seem as if the power and prestige of the corporate CEO position is an enviable one, like being a star, and usually coming with wealth and privilege. These positions come with a high level of visibility, and with that the pressures associated with it.

On the other hand, with such privilege comes a price, specifically a level of visibility that cannot be separated from the pressure associated with it. Leaders of other types of organizations outside of business, including government leaders, cultural icons, etc., may live with even more exposure, and some may be more than pleased to opt out of the privileges in order to be free of the pressures. But this article will focus narrowly on CEOs.

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.

Why do CEOs so frequently have feelings of loneliness and isolation?

The Emotional Labor of Visibility

The position of CEO is often associated with public visibility and intense scrutiny. Employees, Boards, investors and analysts, affiliates such as vendors and suppliers are all examining the CEO’s comments, positions, and more for clues to events that may alter matters of interest to them. Knowing this, a CEO must work to project a positive and strong image in the best of times, but critically so when crises hit or things are not going well. Increasingly, with social media, CEOs must also have a care for their personal reputations, separate from that of their company. The personality of the CEO is the big question mark in terms of how well they adapt to this level of visibility. Many tolerate it and rely on their PR team to field most issues. Some thrive in the limelight. After all, one doesn’t attain the top position of a company without a strong dose of competitiveness. However, for many CEOs the expectation to project strength and to hide personal emotions reflecting a struggle can be unwelcome and difficult emotional labor. It can generate additional stress, be met with emotional distancing, or behavioral defenses such as avoidance.

The Emotional Labor of CEOs:

  • CEOs have a high profile inside and outside their organizations – they live in a fishbowl.
  • CEOs are compelled to project a positive and strong image of self and company.
  • Any vulnerability or exposure might impact public appraisal of a company’s value and affect the morale of employees.
  • Under pressure, some CEOs may want to retreat, while others put on a public persona that is skin deep.

Just as a waiter serving customers in a restaurant must labor to manage his personal emotions in favor of a role-appropriate façade, so too the role of CEO often requires emotional labor to manage their personal feelings. CEOs must be particularly wary of exposing personal vulnerability in case it ends up being at cross purposes with their leadership priorities. On the other hand, in crises (and most any other time), it is authenticity in the leader that is sought after and provides true reassurance to those around them, and leads to real trust. CEOs who are too buttoned up and careful fail to provide their followers the reassurance and emotional connection that is a critical function of leadership. This is a dilemma, how to find the right balance between personal feelings and states, and what constituents need at any given moment – especially when there’s a gap between the needs and feelings of the leader and of the organization. It’s the tension faced by every professional in any setting; one faced by every teacher interfacing a room full of students; every doctor caring for patients. However, the expectations and pressure felt by a CEO charged with the material well-being and livelihoods of thousands of people is daunting. No wonder that finding the middle path between being real and being strong can be hard, especially when the CEO’s very human personal feelings, life circumstances, or fluctuating mental states are at variance with what they feel is required of them.

The Hazard of Invulnerability

Many CEOs are more likely to favor projecting an image of strength than oversharing their contrary feelings. At the extreme, a particular vulnerability for CEOs can be the illusion of invulnerability, or succumbing to the belief that a CEO must at least appear to be invulnerable. This can lead to the hazard of maintaining a brittle façade that costs more than it is worth, and soak up emotional and psychological resources that could be better deployed elsewhere. In the worst-case scenario, a CEO might labor so effectively to avoid their own limitations that they buy into their own public persona of invulnerability, or struggle to maintain in at high cost to themselves and their companies.

Serge was an admired and successful CEO to the company he had founded and grown. (All case vignettes and examples in this article are composite sketches of different clients, identities and issues. Names and details are fictional.) In his late 40s, the sight of him in fitness gear bustling into the building after his run was as routine as morning coffee. He had grown the company’s value in a decade of highly successful acquisitions chosen entirely through his own instincts. However, the latest acquisition was turning into something of a white elephant. Since so far, the success of the company had been due to Serge’s profitable acquisition, he was worried at the prospect that the latest acquisition was rocking the ship. He felt his reputation depended on his streak of success continuing, and it was a rare individual who was willing to challenge Serge’s instincts. Even the company’s Board was walking on eggshells, believing that, for the present, the company would better weather one bad acquisition than anything that would dent Serge’s confidence.

At some point, and without much forethought, Serge brought in an Action Learning™ team consultant to help the leadership team communicate better. It did not take long for the elephant in the room to get mentioned, and surprisingly, it was in fact of considerable relief to Serge to have it talked about openly. Everybody’s effort to protect Serge’s ego had caused a strain that he had not failed to notice, and which had only reinforced his view that he, too, must continue to project an aura of optimism and invincibility that had become untenable. Once Serge and company could focus their efforts on the business problem, the rather awkward arrangement of social and political niceties vanished – at least on this particular issue.

How could Serge and his company have pivoted sooner from unproductive interpersonal expectations?

  • Nothing teaches so effectively as life. In relationships, there is no predicting exactly how specific interactions will go. In this vignette, it could easily have been the case that “Serge” would have Plymouth, Massachusetts been someone for whom preserving his own self-image mattered more than the success of his business – which fortunately was not the case. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” could be the lesson of this and many other interactions.
  • In general, more fluidity, more learning, and therefore more success is guaranteed when there is room to make errors, room to be human, room to bring in perspective and humor to difficult situations involving our all-too-common human frailties.
  • Business leaders, like Serge, could allow themselves to recruit expertise in human personal and social psychology to shorten the time it takes to navigate their way out of dynamics that threaten to become prolonged.

(All cases are either composites sketches with names and details disguised.)