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Lonely Top Dogs

Lonely Top Dogs

Being the boss can be an isolating experience.

August 5, 2016

“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,” according to an article at Management Today

Some of the unique perils found in the corner office include compromises between work and family obligations, public accountability, large responsibilities, and—loneliness.

Those at the top are busy. They’re surrounded by teams at the ready and their daily interactions are many. Yet “this can give them a false sense of being connected” because despite the quantity of daily transactions with staffers, there are “few with whom they can really share.”

A sense of isolation is the result, and real consequences exist for companies and the people that lead them.

Whether you’re a CEO sitting in lonely “silence” or one of the CEO’s colleagues who fails to recognize and appreciate the unique challenges facing those at the helm, research findings this week shine a light on the various issues surrounding and ramifications of loneliness in the C-suite.

‘The road had lonely times but I kept myself busy.’  --Buck Owens, musician

A few surveys show that CEO loneliness is pervasive and this reality comes with repercussions.

In the 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review, half of the CEOs surveyed feel lonely. Of those who report loneliness, 61% think it is detrimental to their performance. 

First-time CEOs are particularly vulnerable to loneliness, and almost 70% of new CEOs who feel isolated think their sensations have negative impact on their performance.

CEOs aren’t the only leaders susceptible to loneliness, the article notes. Any figures of authority can struggle with isolation.

“Leaders owe it to themselves—and more importantly, their organizations—to make sure this isolation does not impact their effectiveness.”

Consultancy firm RHR International also reports executives say isolation can be a hindrance, as reported in Psychology Today.    

Half of CEOs surveyed say they feel lonely, and 61% believe the sentiment “can potentially hinder their ability to do their jobs.”

The burdens of responsibility surrounding the CEO’s position, in addition to having a limited number of people to confide in, are partially to blame. 

Another Harvard Business Review article examines “The Strange Relationship Between Power and Loneliness” and suggests there is a lack of data exploring such relationships. But some findings reveal “attaining power actually led people to feel less isolated from others, and lacking it led them to feel more isolated.”

These conclusions are limited though. A few explanations for disconnects:

• Temporary versus sustained power. Those in high-power jobs report less isolation than others in lower-power roles. But this sense might be attributed to the fact that “a fleeting sense of power boosts social connections, whereas occupying a high-power role for a sustained period generates feelings of isolation.”

• The ultimate responsibility for big decisions is impactful.  Another report by the School for CEOs shows 93% of CEOs and chairs think future CEOs need “more preparation for the role than they typically get,” particularly to prepare for loneliness and final accountability.

A discord between subjective and objective isolation. Two-thirds of CEOs experience relative isolation, with no advice or external coaching. “This…speaks to an important distinction between objective and subjective isolation.” In other words, the quantity of connections doesn’t correspond to one’s sense of connection—those with a few advisers might feel connections, others may have many and feel alone.

“The relationship between power and loneliness is complicated,” the article notes. 

‘Going from underdog to top dog is exciting, but it comes with problems.’  --Gary Linden, professional surfer

A sense of isolation stems from two sources, according to an article at First Sun Consulting:  Fear and ego.

In combination, these components “prevent even highly capable CEOs from turning to others for support when they need it most.”

Loneliness may not seem a pressing concern in good times. But, it’s during challenging times that problems stemming from loneliness become an issue. 

An article at maelconsulting.com  identifies three additional sources of isolation

1. Distrust as the CEO considers agendas other may have; analysis is required to weigh merits of intentions of others.

2. Appearances must be maintained as CEOs want to appear decisive and self-sufficient. Expressions of uncertainty “will be perceived as weakness and then exploited.”

3. “Feeding feuds” as CEOs deal with competing direct reports. It may present circumstances in which a CEO is perceived as choosing between the reports rather than their suggestions; a sense of favoritism could result.

Even more contributors to a sense of isolation for leaders are identified in an article at entrepreneur.com. They include a lack of peers; dearth of honest feedback; requirements to make choices outside their area of expertise; total responsibility; and limited control.

‘Popularity is not leadership.’  --Richard Marcinko, author

There are steps CEOs can take to mitigate chances that they will feel far removed.

CEOs should find mentors and advisors and keep the influence of gatekeepers at bay, according to the entrepreneur.com article. They also need to become adept at making choices when information is incomplete, and to understand the influence they wield. 

“Instilling a compelling vision and then tying that vision to every employees’ performance” is key. The successful CEO will ensure employees know what is to be accomplished and that they will be measured based upon the culture the CEO establishes.

There are “Nine Ways to Battle Leadership Isolation,” according to switchandshift.com:

  1. Create time for other leaders and connect;
  2. Assemble advisors;
  3. Work with mentors;
  4. Be not only boss but friend;
  5. Remain humble;
  6. Be helpful;
  7. Seek feedback;
  8. Meditate; and
  9. Participate in events outside work with teammates.

Given all the steps leaders can take to lessen the sense of isolation, why don’t CEOs seek help?

According to a post at John Bauer Consulting, there may be several reasons:

  • Ego can get in the way if CEOs think it’s weak to rely on a support system.
  • Denial is a state in which CEOs fail to appear as anything less than perfect. They sense revealing their imperfections may endanger their reputation or fall short of the “image they felt they had to maintain in the organization and the community.”
  • Support is available, but CEOs don’t know where it exists. Acquaintances may be limited for “ego-driven leaders” and others may perceive aloofness. “They are in desperate need of having a confidential and non-judgmental person they can trust…and help sort through the challenges they are facing.”

Some leaders are lonely by choice, the article notes. Others are lonely by circumstance.

Although studies show it can be lonely at the top, loneliness needn’t be an expectation for the CEO who anticipates such possibility and works to avoid isolation. Organizations will ultimately be stronger when leadership is strong enough to admit that they too—like all employees—benefit from support systems. 

LORA BRAY is an information research analyst for CUNA’s economics and statistics department. Follow her on Twitter via @Bray_Lora and visit the CUNA blog, The Research Roundup: Economic Perspectives.