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I'm sooooo Lonely. Is it lonely at the top for CEOs?

CEO at his wits end because he is lonely and isolated.
Lonely CEO at the top

We hear the phrase “it’s lonely at the top” a lot. But is it?

CEOs often experience feelings of loneliness and isolation due to the pressures and responsibilities of their role. A recent Harvard Business Review survey found that 50% of CEOs reported feeling lonely, with 61% believing it hindered their performance.

It’s a more complicated question than one might think. First, let’s distinguish between lonely and isolated. In an interview, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple commented that the issue isn't so much loneliness as it is isolation. 

Loneliness has been defined as a “perception that one is socially on the edge.” Let’s not make light of mental issues such as decision fatigue, stress, burnout and the like. These present serious issues for CEOs and others. But on the whole, I submit that most CEOs are not lonely. They are around people all day and are frankly involved in more meetings and expected at more functions than they care to attend.

Rather, they are isolated. And in some respects this isolation can be the result of their own actions and behaviors. CEOs can find themselves in sort of an echo chamber. It’s been said that power is the currency of success. Over time, a CEO can inadvertently begin to surround themselves only with people that tell them what they want to hear. This is also known as CEO Disease and it’s more prevalent than we might think. After all, who wants to deliver bad news or tell the boss that their grand new vision might not be a good idea.

Lee Iacocca, former CEO of Chrysler,  was known for his bold leadership style and innovative ideas. Remember, he was the chief marketer of the Ford Mustang which is still around 60+ years later. Over time he became increasingly confident that he was always right and surrounded himself with a leadership team who were reticent and unwilling to challenge him. As a result, he became resistant to criticism and failed to adapt to the changing landscape of the automotive industry. Ultimately, Chrysler had to be bailed out by the government.

What can a CEO do?

1. Build a support system.

This could be a formal CEO peer group or an informal network of business associates whose advice you value. Bounce your ideas and challenges off them and ask for their perspective. Stop building walls around yourself and start building bridges.

2. Learn to trust.

Yes, as a CEO you have to be guarded. Trust your intuition and let others in. If you set the trust bar too high you may be self architecting your own isolation. Work at being approachable.

3. Intentionally connect.

When she was CEO of PepsiCo, Indra Nooyi sent hundreds of letters to her senior leaders' parents raving about the positive contributions that their children made to Pepsi. While the 1970’s AT&T slogan “Reach Out and Touch Someone” might have gotten them and you in a world of hurt if misinterpreted, CEOs need to be intentional in developing trusted, safe connections with their leadership team, with their employees and honestly, with all of their stakeholders.

Then, maybe, just maybe, you won't feel so lonely.

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