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.