Illustration: Francesco Bongiorni

It's lonely being the CEO

Top dogs seem to have it all - power, status, super-salaries and teams of people to do their bidding. But despite the trappings of success, being the boss can be an isolating and friendless experience.

by Tim Johns
Last Updated: 29 Mar 2016

Who wouldn’t want to be a CEO? It’s a role that comes laden with extras: status, authority, power and money. And for those at the very top, there’s the chauffeur-driven car, and even perhaps a private jet whisking you between Davos and some other gathering of the great and good. Not only does the job provide recognition of one’s special qualities of leadership but it also gives a platform for fashioning an organisation in one’s own image. For some, success breeds recognition leading to bigger roles, public honours and a life of government advisory positions and non-executive posts. It can be a beguiling prospect, providing hero status for the chosen few.

It would, of course, be naive to suggest that being a CEO doesn’t also have significant downsides. Even the most ambitious would recognise that the top job comes with real pressures and heavy responsibilities, especially when times are tough. As JFK reminded us, victory has 100 fathers but defeat is an orphan.

Also, one’s time isn’t always one’s own, and real compromises have to be made between work commitments and, for instance, family activities. And then, especially for the CEOs of high-profile quoted companies, there’s the personal intrusion that comes with public accountability.

These are big enough drawbacks to make all but the most determined think twice. As one former consigliere to a number of CEOs told me, CEOs tend not to be the best leaders nor even the most effective, merely the ones who want it enough, that they are prepared to make the biggest sacrifices.

There is, however, another significant disadvantage in the life of many CEOs that rarely gets much attention. Yet it’s the one aspect that, deep down, a great number will recognise. Many leaders will admit that it is actually incredibly lonely at the top. There is a real paradox: these bosses find that despite being surrounded by hundreds of people who work for them and having whole teams at their beck and call, they feel terribly alone. They may be always busy, in constant demand and interacting with other people, but this can give them a false sense of being connected. They have plenty of people to talk to, but few with whom they can really share. And it’s that inability to share what they really feel that can create a huge sense of isolation.

Lonely at the top. Illustration by Francesco Bongiorni

In many organisations, issues get upwardly delegated, making the CEO effectively the decision-maker-in-chief. There are always things for them to do and papers to read, creating a never-ending conveyor belt of work. In such an environment, where people are continually looking for their input, many leaders can feel dislocated from those around them. The nature of the position and their perceived importance can create a distance between the leader and others. They can tell when they walk into a room that their very presence affects the atmosphere. Sotto voce discussions, of which no doubt they have been the subject, quickly stop. Embarrassed eyes look elsewhere, others are fixed on their leader looking for signs of what mood they’re in, perhaps assessing how to frame some difficult news. People are everywhere, but friends are in short supply.

Some leaders respond by removing themselves from ‘real’ people even further, coming to rely on a smaller coterie of advisers and support staff. They eat and meet with a chosen few who act as both providers and gatekeepers, keeping the leader’s show on the road.

This may start off as a well-intentioned way of creating organisational effectiveness but it often leads to yet more isolation. Those acolytes close to the centre of power can easily turn from being supporters to sycophants, telling the leader what they want to hear and not what they need to know. Of course, some may tell their leader the occasional home truth; most however tend to be wary of the career-limiting possibilities of too much honesty.

Socialising can also be difficult. Everyone is on their best behaviour when going out with the boss. Chumminess and bonhomie at the football stadium or at a wine bar can often feel strained and false. There are leaders who genuinely want to be part of the team, throwing open-house parties and inviting employees to bring their families. But such events can be toe-curlingly embarrassing for many – it’s as if the boss is trying too hard to buy favour.

On the other hand, I remember the wife of one CEO saying how nice it was being asked out to lunch at the home of one of her husband’s team because they didn’t really have that many friends. Little did she know that the reason for the invitation was far less to do with genuine friendship than it was with the naked ambition of the person who’d invited them.

When it comes to attitudes towards the CEO, some people have a stake in supporting them and helping them succeed, whereas others have an eye to murkier options. There are those, of course, who while stopping short of undermining their boss, certainly don’t hide the fact that they think the job should be theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if many CEOs look around their management top table and wonder how many are really on their side. Everyone has their own agenda of sorts, and many hedge their bets: that can’t but help to make a leader feel lonely and isolated.

Part of this dislocation may be the result of some of the traditional views of leadership. That leaders are marked out as being special; a breed of quasi super-heroes who bestride their worlds. Their armoury is decisiveness, execution and delivery. They go around doing things, constantly active, and never sleeping. They’re seen as a race of marathon-running corporate athletes, impervious to jetlag and self-doubt in equal measure. Wherever they go, they are constantly making judgments, solving problems, and leaving everyone else reeling in their wakes, feeling slightly deflated for not being as clever or important. This superhero approach also has the effect of exacerbating the gap between them and others.

Another issue is the current societal focus on certainty. We live in a world where it is rarely acceptable to say that one simply doesn’t know. Despite all the volatility, complexity and ambiguity in the world, business leaders are expected to be certain about their performance in both the long and the short term. Que sais-je may have been a suitable maxim for Montaigne, but it’s not a viewpoint that is particularly fashionable at business schools. Leaders are expected to know the answer. That, it seems, is what they’re paid for.

All this means that CEOs often feel that they cannot be seen to allow self-doubt and uncertainty, hence very few are comfortable in showing their vulnerability. Yet, many will admit privately to suffering from imposter syndrome and fear that they could be found out at any time. This anxiety heightens their desire to button things up rather than share the doubts that are natural to all humans.

A CEO Snapshot Survey by RHR International in 2012 found that over half admitted to feeling lonely, and yet it still remains a taboo subject. In fact, it is difficult to find CEOs who are ready to admit it publicly. We can only imagine what it must be like to be the focus of relentless, 24-hour scrutiny. It is one thing to take the limelight when things are going well, but just consider what it must have been like for someone like Tony Hayward at BP. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in 2010 all eyes turned to him. How was he going to deal with it? It may have been BP that was all over the front pages and TV news bulletins, but it must have felt to him as if he were the sole focus.

Knowing that the buck stopped with him must have led to feelings of isolation, perhaps contributing to his infamous public plea that he wanted his life back. So desperate was he for the company of real friends rather than corporate apparatchiks that he felt it was right to go sailing with his family rather than continue to deal with the crisis.

And what about Phil Clarke at Tesco? He inherited a business that did need to change but he seemed to focus more on what was wrong rather than on building it up, including getting rid of many (perhaps too many) experienced senior people very quickly. His actions seemed to exacerbate his own personal isolation and disengagement from colleagues, no more so than at a senior team awayday in 2012 when, after having exhorted his executives to make sacrifices – including forgoing their bonuses – he then led some of them across the car park to admire his newly restored Ferrari. Little wonder that when he was later put in the spotlight with some awkward questions to answer, he found himself alone with no one on his side.

Of course, there is more than just a sense of isolation involved – both Hayward and Clarke were ill-suited to the role for other reasons too. But had they – and others like them – fully recognised from the start that the job they were assuming came with a high likelihood of isolation and loneliness, perhaps they would have approached it differently. Building in a proper support structure of people who, rather than offering advice or grinding axes, are there solely as a sounding board; people who are expert listeners who do no more than let the leader think out loud.

Such people and skills are in short supply, and perhaps that is precisely because it is so difficult for leaders to admit to others that they are lonely. Not everyone wants to take their issues home and unburden on their partners. Old friends may be useful but it is not possible or realistic to discuss sensitive business issues with an old mate. Within the business, CEOs can’t share business existentialist angst with their chairman or their management team. External advisers, be they legal or banking, will inevitably have their own agendas.

Many CEOs do have a mentor: a former boss, perhaps, who has helped them with career advice in the past. Mentors, however, tend to tell people what they would do (or have done) in the same circumstances. That is not the same as helping someone think through their own solution to their problem. Some also have performance coaches, but these tend to be paid for by the company primarily to make the CEO a more effective leader.

Leaders can also turn to their communications adviser – who with their obvious links to and interest in the views of the outside world can make for reliable sources of advice. But even then not everything is shareable. Most communications directors I know will be familiar with the moment – be it on a plane or over a bottle of wine on a foreign trip –when their CEO starts to open up, only to check themselves when they realise that it may not be a great idea to start thinking out loud.

Leadership is difficult. Perhaps, the very nature of the role makes it unrealistic to expect that CEOs can have proper friendships at work. But that doesn’t mean that they can or should be expected to do it all alone. Leaders, more than most, need a safe place to think. Somewhere where they can stop and pause to consider what they’ve become in relation to who they are.

A true friend is someone who wants what is best for you; someone who will listen without judging, and someone who will not tell you what to do. Given this, perhaps it is unsurprising that it is so difficult for leaders to be able to find these traits in the work environment. But none of that means that CEOs shouldn’t find themselves a safe place to think, where they can have a proper reflective conversation. Someone to talk to who asks the right questions and can help hold a mirror up, so that they can start to see for themselves how they are viewed and how to reconnect to their organisations.

A coach or counsellor who provides this sort of service will never be a best friend, but they can perhaps be the next best thing, a loco amica. And given the reality of the top job, perhaps that’s the best that they can hope for.

Isolation and loneliness also need to stop being taboo subjects and, like the related issues of stress and depression, start to come out into the open and become socially acceptable topics. Only then will we be able to properly deal with the hidden toll they take on those who make it to the hot seat. And that will be a good thing for leaders and a good thing for businesses, too.  

Tim Johns was formerly VP of global corporate communications at Unilever and director of media relations at BT, and now runs Orato Consulting,

How to dodge the isolation trap

Feeling friendless isn’t just bad news for the boss personally, it can be equally damaging for the business too. Leaders who live their lives in the ‘CEO bubble’ have been shown to be more likely to take bad decisions and ignore the counsel of experienced colleagues. So how can those who gain – or aspire to – the top job avoid the sense of isolation that can come with it? 

Find someone to offload on. Sounds easy but it’s not. If your spouse or partner is up for it then you’re in luck, if not it can be a coach or even a therapist. Whoever they are, the necessary qualities are impartiality and being a very good listener.

Build your personal network. This is your ‘network within your network’ of associates with whom you have a more personal relationship and who over time can become real friends. They can provide a valuable external perspective and keep you grounded. Commercial sensitivities still apply, however.

Establish a peer group. The people who are most likely to understand the pressures that CEOs come under are – ta-da – other CEOs. So spend time with other leaders from different walks of life.

Get on the NED circuit. Spending time on one or two other boards will not only help you do both of the above, it will also provide great insights into alternative ways to interact with your fellow directors back in the day job.

Embrace reality. Leaders are inevitably more isolated than those that are led. Accepting this as the normal state of affairs rather than trying to gloss over it can help to make the isolation easier to bear.



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