Part I: Leadership power can change relationship dynamics

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

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 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?

Part I: Leadership power can change relationship dynamics

When Lorenzo, a long-tenured CFO in an information technology company, was promoted to a recently-vacated CEO position, frustration in the company was high. (All case vignettes and examples in this article are composite sketches of different clients, identities and issues. Names and details are fictional.) Whereas he’d been passed over in the first round as being “too safe” and not sufficiently charismatic to bring the company around a difficult bend, the previous CEO had been a poor fit and the company had endured many quarters of wheel-spinning. Lorenzo wasted no time in reorganizing his leadership team and executing other moves he had long thought were needed. Although being known and liked by many was one of his strengths, and although many of his maneuvers were proving to be productive, to his surprise Lorenzo found that he had lost some of the ease of camaraderie with his colleagues. On the one hand he found himself busy with an increase of people seeking to connect with and influence him; on the other hand, he did not influence easily and he perceived increasing tensions because of it. Given the lost time the organization had suffered, he felt he needed to execute changes fast, so his working model of leadership was one of hub-and-spoke. However, it was hard for him to feel that, after the leadership team had been reorganized, the rest of the team was more cohesive with each other than with him. Also, he imagined some of them were critical of his decisions, but he felt he had no choice but to move fast to avoid bogging down the process with too much discussion. Nonetheless, when at one point he chanced to see a backchannel email about him with a joking, yet derisive tone between Steve and Matt, both former “friends,” he could not help being strongly affected. The logical side of him recognized the email as nothing more than the same kind of emails he himself had written when someone else was in the CEO seat. It was mostly harmless venting. But he had not counted on how hurtful it was to feel that his people did not always support him, or that they were so angry about his decisions that they would turn against him, however temporarily. He went home and had a bad night’s sleep over it. The next day, he returned to work, resolved to be bigger than these conflicts and to not let them sway him from his course.

“Strong of chin, stout of spirit”*

US corporate structures often confer CEOs significant power, even as the trend toward team-based leadership is growing. The shift of power dynamic can be particularly noticeable when the CEO is promoted internally, and old patterns of relationships are affected by new patterns of power, influence, and decision-making. As can be seen from this vignette, how these changes are navigated depend strongly on the individual personalities and style of the CEO. Lorenzo is probably someone disinclined to talk much about feelings or relationships. For that matter he seems to be more comfortable being self-sufficient than open himself and his thoughts up for discussion. On the one hand this can be a strength, or at least perceived as a strength, not the least by Lorenzo himself. “Strong of chin, stout of spirit, strong but silent” is after all right in the center of the norm for masculine men in American and many other cultures. On the other hand, research shows that being too identified with the need to project strength and hide vulnerability can itself become a serious psychological liability when the ability to share is not part of a person’s repertoire of interpersonal skills. In the case of Lorenzo, it’s possible he did not have this limitation as a rule. However, once he felt the organizational responsibilities and pressures of the role of CEO, he opted to suppress his personal feelings and needs for affiliation in favor of the difficult decisions he felt the company needed.

Lorenzo also chose a path of leadership in which power was centralized in him. Although he did not enjoy the interpersonal price he paid, he believed, correctly or not, that swift execution was a greater priority than making friends. Thus, we can see that loneliness is built into the role of CEO when she or he makes choices with far-reaching implications, without guarantee of success. Even the choice of doing it differently, more democratically, is itself a choice. And every choice has its detractors.

*Adler, Eric. “A good man is hard to find – especially in the mirror.” March 22, 1998 edition of the Chicago Tribune.

Lorenzo’s Options for Improving Communication and Tone

  • He could explain his thinking more extensively. Most people accept differences in power and are willing to go along with other people being tasked with making decisions, if they understand why. Asking someone to go along with blind trust reinforces the power differential and can actually backfire, creating less trust.
  • He could create a smaller, sub-team with whom to air out his thinking rather than believing he has to do all the thinking alone. This sub-team could be composed of people inside or outside the organization, such as a trusted Board member, a former CEO, or a trusted person outside the company.
  • He could seek out a trusted advisor or confidante with whom to share the kinds of thoughts and feelings that he may believe are irrelevant to the running of the business, but which nevertheless can have a powerful impact when left to fester.
  • He could share with Steve and Matt that he had accidentally run into their email about him. With some lightness he can show he appreciates it as an opportunity to air out different views, while with some authenticity he can show that [of course] it didn’t feel good to see it.