The Value of having a leadership style that leads to good intel

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?

Being Open to Good Intel to Make Good Decisions

43-year-old Vijay was the rare breed of inventor and business leader. (All case vignettes and examples in this article are composite sketches of different clients, identities and issues. Names and details are fictional.) His innovative ideas in the early education spacehad taken off such that the small group of co-founders was now a company 300 strong.

Vijay’s informal style was consistent with his commitment to a flat organization. It was clear that he genuinely enjoyed being treated more like a friend than a CEO. It seemed as if there was nothing about Vijay that every employee did not know, from his children, whom he talked about constantly, to his favorite restaurants.

Vijay was positive and optimistic about the products he and his co-founders had designed, and for awhile the company floated on the strong sales of the original two products. However, the 3rd product, which Vijay himself had solely designed, was not taking off. Vijay was convinced it was just a matter of time and improved marketing. However, in order to shore up his positive attitude and optimism, without realizing it, he was closing out the feedback of those who seemed to have a negative attitude or unwelcome information about the success of the 3rd product. Eventually Vijay avoided listening to input suggesting improvements to the 3rdproduct, which fell under the category of “negative” attitudes in his thinking. People who might have had good ideas but who did not share Vijay’s ebullient and extraverted style became increasingly sidelined as the performance of the 3rd product began to impact the company’s success. Those individuals who rose up in the company raised the bar for what would be considered input that was sufficiently valuable to work its way up. After three years the 3rdproduct was discontinued, but not before several talented people had already left.

Encourage Frank Feedback

Good decisions come from good information. You own emotions provide valuable information, and so does honest feedback from others. People are more apt to offer honest feedback when they believe that you welcome the information and will not punish them for offering it.

Each stakeholder may have a personal or professional agenda coloring any feedback. Since a CEO needs honest and thorough input, building relationships with people who disagree with them is essential. Otherwise, the CEO doesn’t have access to the “boots on the ground” perspective that reflects relevant realities. Ironically, Vijay’s open door approach was actually more closed than he realized, and harder to see because he had convinced himself otherwise. Even if some were telling Vijay what he didn’t want to hear, he wasn’t listening, so eventually he broadcast the notion that he wasn’t open to receiving honest feedback. Vijay’s closed door approach cost his company in morale, talent, and time, not to mention money.

Good decisions require weighing a diversity of views and data. This includes both objective information and “soft” data including gut feelings, emotions, and subjective feedback from team members. The process of making sound decisions involves muddling through the ambiguity and sometimes the lack of clarity in the information you receive from others. It involves looking past your own personal biases to see whether the input is fair. Benefiting from feedback requires you to be open to diverse views including those who disagree with you.

Vulnerability and authenticity also come into play during the decision-making process. These very qualities help you the build relationships that facilitate open and honest feedback.

What would have helped Vijay?

  • Vijay may eventually come to the insight that his personality, his need to buoy his optimism by keeping his mind “positive” was blocking important information necessary to business success. He could learn this the long way, or someone could facilitate this learning, probably with the right combination of tact and confrontation.
  • Vijay could be helped to see that his outgoing interpersonal style was creating a company culture that suppressed valuable input from introverts, and in danger of surrounding him with sychophants.
  • Maturing the organization beyond the informal “start-up” phase and building in processes that reduced dependence on Vijay’s personal style and expanded power-and decision-making sharing