Personal & Executive Coach

Consulting Psychologist & Psychoanalyst

Leadership power can change relationship dynamics

The Loneliness of Leadership Series

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 senior leaders so frequently have feelings of loneliness and isolation?

Lorenzo had worked for his mid-sized retail company for 17 years, and had been CFO for 8 of them, when he landed the top job.  (All names and material details in these composite sketches are fictional.)  In the pandemic years he saw 2 CEOs depart with little credit.  After his long tenure, Lorenzo was viewed as a bit staid, pleasant in a safe but boring way.  Lorenzo was aware of this image, which he didn’t mind because he knew he was extremely competent, and he got more done by keeping his distance anyway.  However, when he was offered the vacant CEO position, he leapt right into it.  Finally, he felt, was the opportunity to execute his ideas on the company that he felt he understood better than anyone.

Because of the many quarters spinning its wheels, Lorenzo wasted no time.  He reorganized his leadership team as a hub-and-spoke reporting style, and reduced the frequency of team meetings.  One of Lorenzo’s strengths was being liked and getting along with people. Although his external manner was slightly bland and superficial, there was something in him that was sincerely kind that made most people trust him.  In his turn, after nearly 20 years he had a good network of people in the company with whom he had comfortable and collegial relationships with, a community of peers with little friction like long married couples.

Thus he was surprised to find that, having swiftly executed on both organizational and business changes, the work community he had taken for granted was altered or gone. The seamlessness of interactions had given way to many more people self-consciously seeking time and audience with him.  As he had rationalized to himself that he needed to act swiftly and to a large extent unilaterally, he could only sense opposition and critique – without hearing about it.  Though previously content to keep relations at arms’ length – it had always been a pleasant arm’s length.  Now he sensed there was greater cohesion amidst his erstwhile peers than there was between them and him.  The chemistry had changed.  Nor did he know whether he should ignore it or confront it – for which either choice he had little experience or skill.

An example of this dilemma came when he accidentally saw an email between several of his former buddies, about one of his initiatives that depicted him in a joking, yet derisive tone.  He felt strongly affected.  The logical side of him recognized the banter as nothing more than what he himself had written about decisions from the top. It was mostly harmless venting.  But he had not counted on how hurtful it would feel to see that his people did not always support him; or that they could even undermine him, however situational.  He got a bad night’s sleep over it.  The next day, he returned to work resolved to be “bigger” than these conflicts (ignore them), and to not let the changing dynamics sway him from his leadership 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 or open 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”[1] 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 become a liability.

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, perhaps correctly, that swift execution was a greater priority than making friends.  While Lorenzo has every chance of learning on the job and establishing a new, workable status quo, he is also in danger of traveling downward into an ever-narrowing tunnel of reduced interpersonal and intrapersonal options.  The more isolated he feels, the less he is likely to seek to make himself understood, or to solicit the opinion of others.

What could Lorenzo do differently?

Were he able to, by himself or with help, explain himself more extensively, chances are good this type of glitch need only be temporary.  .  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.

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