Lonely at the Top: Ways to Address Executive Loneliness

3 years ago, Posted in Leadership

Being CEO can be incredibly lonely—everyone looks to you for leadership, yet you may have no one else to lean on. Here’s how I’ve dealt with isolation as a CEO.

Martin Senn, the former head of Zurich Insurance, committed suicide in May this year, less than three years after two other top Swiss executives took their own lives. This is a somber topic, but it’s an important one to address. This event is a harsh reminder of the intense pressure that CEOs can face in their jobs and the potential for devastating consequences when stress, isolation and other mental health issues are not suitably addressed.

We all know the metaphorical image of a CEO standing proudly atop a mountain, having risen to the pinnacle of success. However, that mountaintop can feel pretty isolated, even if your teammates and colleagues are just outside your office door.

A survey by RHR International found that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role. Of this group, 61 percent believe isolation hinders their performance. That’s a significant proportion of top executives who are suffering and not performing at their peak. Executive loneliness is bad for people and bad for business.

In my experience, fear and ego are two of the main causes of this kind of isolation. On the one hand, there’s fear of appearing inadequate and concern that asking for help could make others doubt your judgement. After all, CEOs are supposed to have all the answers: the buck stops with you. Meanwhile, your ego is telling you that you really don’t need others to help make big decisions — who knows your business better than you do? Combined, these two factors can prevent even highly capable CEOs from turning to others for support.

When times are good, you may not even notice this. It’s when your business faces real struggles that the risks and consequences of loneliness come into play. In the 2008-2009 crisis, my business was in desperate shape and everyone was looking to me for answers. I could feel the walls of loneliness closing in. Here are some steps I was able to take to overcome the CEO loneliness trap.

Finding peer support

One of the most revelatory things for me was realizing that I wasn’t alone in being alone. Lots of other CEOs out there were experiencing the same challenges and going through the same emotions. I just had to look outside of my own company and immediate circle to find them.

For me, the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a collective of CEOs from companies around the world, has been an incredible channel for connecting with peers. During regular meetings with my YPO forum group — eight to 10 CEOs or other top decision-makers from non-competing businesses — we all share the challenges that we’re facing and speak frankly about how to tackle them.

In 2009 when BuildDirect was teetering on the brink of collapse, I confessed to my forum mates that in about a month’s time we wouldn’t be able to make payroll. This was an incredibly scary thing to admit, yet just being able to say it to others was enough to unlock the creative thinking needed to come up with a solution.

Bottom line: There are other people out there who have gone through the exact same challenges.  Finding them — even if it means looking outside your company — is a first step toward overcoming isolation.

Embracing vulnerability and building trust

Vulnerability is all about inviting others into your world, making it a natural antidote to loneliness. The challenge is taking that first step and letting down your defenses. I’ve found that simply confiding in people from the get-go – in essence, trusting first and asking questions later – can dramatically accelerate ties with your team. While you never know what kind of response you’ll get, in my experience the benefits far outweigh the risks.  

This isn’t a unique perspective on my part. Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has spoken previously about the importance of vulnerability and transparency and the role they played when his company was struggling in 2008. Instead of trying to become the lone savior of Starbucks, he helped his employees understand the challenges and empowered them to become part of the solution.

I’ve seen the power of this firsthand. During the crisis, I held a company-wide meeting and explained to everyone that we would have to shut down BuildDirect if we couldn’t figure out a solution to the problems we were facing. This open approach allowed everyone to take ownership of the challenge and work toward solving it, which we ultimately did.

Maintaining perspective and gratitude

When I think about how fortunate I am in terms of having a loving family, good health and the ability to make positive contributions to the world around me, it’s hard to get bogged down in despair or loneliness. A study published in 2007, in fact, found that gratitude led directly to “higher levels of perceived social support, and lower levels of stress and depression.”

The challenge, as always, is remembering all of this in the heat of the moment. For me, maintaining this perspective is all about routine and repetition. I work hard to carve out dedicated time for family and friends. For example, when I spend time with my family at our cabin, I ensure that my attention is fully on things like swimming, campfires and enjoying each other’s company, not work. In the end, gratitude is almost like a muscle: it’s something you have to consciously exercise or else you lose it.

The media tends to embrace the “CEO as hero” mentality, and this is reinforced by shining the spotlight on CEOs only when things go really well or really poorly.  For leaders who judge their success by what the media says, this can add immense pressure and feed the problem of executive loneliness, sometimes with terrible consequences.

However, great CEOs know it’s never about them. It’s about the impact that their business has on others. They build relationships and teams that pass credit for success onto other people. They stand in when mistakes are made, shielding the team so that experimenting and learning can continue. Win or lose, knowing it’s not all about you, and never has been — can make all the difference.

Did you enjoy this post?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. To see more,  follow me on Twitter @JeffBooth


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