Personal & Executive Coach

Consulting Psychologist & Psychoanalyst

The Emotional Labor of Leadership Power and Visibility

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?

Vince was a liked and successful CEO to the company he had founded and grown.  (All names and material details in these composite sketches are fictional.)  In his late 40s, the sight of him bustling into the office in fitness gear 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, giving him the reputation of having the Midas touch.  However, the latest acquisition was turning into something of a white elephant. 

On the one hand, Vince was worried that this thing had the potential to seriously rock his company’s stability.  On the other hand, he felt his reputation hinged on turning this thing into a success after all, so that he maintained an outwardly positive demeanor, which few people dared challenge openly.  Everyone walked on eggshells, feeling vaguely that maybe a temporary setback was to be preferred to denting Vince’s self-confidence and thus his Midas Touch.

Fortunately, Vince brought in an Action Learning™ team consultant, a method designed to help teams solve problems by communicating more effectively.  Under the strict rules of Action Learning communication, it took no time at all for the problematic acquisition to get mentioned; and surprisingly, Vince found it a considerable relief to have it talked about openly.  Everybody’s effort to protect Vince’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 Vince and company could openly agree on their current risks, they could focus their efforts on the problem.  Moreover it allowed Vince not to feel cocooned in the increasing isolation brought about by both sides feeling like they had to keep up appearances.

What is Emotional Labor?

A senior leadership position often involves public visibility and intense scrutiny, particularly so in public companies, and particularly so when things are not going well.  Many leaders are more likely to favor projecting an image of strength and strategy than oversharing their ambivalence or uncertainty.  The personality of the senior leader is the big question mark in terms of how well they adapt to this level of visibility.  Some outsource their PR and hope for the best.  A few thrive in the limelight. However, for many leaders 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.

 Just as a waiter serving customers in a restaurant must labor to manage their personal emotions in favor of a role-appropriate façade, so too the role of a leader often requires emotional labor to manage their personal feelings.  On the other hand, it is authenticity in the leader that is sought after and provides true reassurance to those around them, and leads to real trust.  Leaders who are too buttoned up fail to provide their followers the reassurance and emotional connection that is a critical function of leadership.  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.  No wonder that finding the middle path between being real and being strong can be hard, especially when the leader’s very human personal feelings, life circumstances, or fluctuating mental states are at variance with what they feel is required of them.

What could Vince have done differently?

If the job involves hiding uncertainty from others, it does not mean that one should hide them from oneself.  More often than not, it isn’t so much that a leader is hiding their thoughts, feelings, or motivations – as much as they are propelled by the daily tide of action and reaction that keeps them from having even having the time to recognize them, or process them.  Instinct often takes over.  Recruiting help to create that space for reflection can shorten the time it takes to navigate the path out of dynamics that threaten to become prolonged.