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The Lonely CEO

We constantly hear that it is lonely at the top in both a corporation and a nonprofit organization. (I have used the word “company” here to include both types of organizations.) Because everyone inside the company and many outside constantly compete for face time with the CEO, it is not lonely in the conventional sense except for CEOs who structure their lives to exclude other people. Indeed, an almost uniform complaint among the CEOs, with whom I have discussed this issue, is that they do not have enough time alone to devote to thinking through strategic issues and the “unknown unknowns.”

It is true, however, that most CEOs have a sense of “aloneness,” which comes from a variety of sources: the CEO is the lone decision-maker on major issues and he or she knows that some of those decisions are bound to be wrong; the CEO is accountable for everything that happens at the company, good and disastrous; he or she is the worrier of last resort for assessing external threats and the uncertainties of the future.

See “Dear CEOs: It Doesn’t Have to Be Lonely at the Top,” by Fred Crawford, former CEO of AlixPartners. But there are pitfalls in talking to both employees and board members about major threats before you have a proposed response. Many CEOs are quick to admit that they have no one to talk to about their most challenging issues: commonly problems for which there seem to be no good answers; a major failure in the making which will create business and reputational risk; and existential threats stemming from a disruptive competitor or external long-term political, economic, demographic, generational or cultural changes. Most CEOs do not want to go to their boards with these issues unless they have a viable proposed response to the threat, or at least a set of options. Yet creating that response is precisely what they need to talk to someone about. People inside the company often have their own agendas and it is difficult to be assured of confidentiality once word begins to circulate within the company, so they do not talk to anyone associated with the company. Then when everything starts to go bad, the CEO is accused of having hidden the growing crisis and the board is accused of lax oversight.CEOs can and do seek advice from others at the company and from members of their boards.

The Lonely CEO

This “aloneness” can be magnified by the CEO’s personality characteristics. There are certainly CEOs who insulate themselves. They take the back elevator to their office and the door is always closed. They not infrequently cancel meetings with even the most senior staff with no explanation and announce new initiatives that have been discussed with only a few whom they “really trust” – which is often another way of saying that they talk to those who share their views. This kind of conduct is often explained by saying “our CEO is an introvert.”

An inflated ego rather than introversion is sometimes the cause. See “Ego is the enemy of good leadership,” a short HBR piece that discusses the insularity issue in terms of the CEO’s large and growing ego. CEO insularity is also caused by others in the company who work hard to make the CEO happy. The combination of a multitude of CEO perks and the behavior of subordinates weaves a protective web around the leader, who comes to believe that a role in which no one challenges his or her views is the new reality. This is a not uncommon phenomenon in large public companies and is at least as common in privately-held, particularly family-held, companies which have few, if any, truly independent directors on the board. It can also be a problem in nonprofits driven by a leader with a strong, messianic vision where otherwise sophisticated trustees hang back from pushing back at the leader because they believe that they don’t know enough about the right way to execute against the philanthropic mission and vision of the organization.

Peer advisory groups composed of CEOs of companies which do not compete with each other can be extremely helpful. If the members are carefully selected, they represent a very deep reservoir of talent, experience and different approaches to similar problems. Unfortunately, many groups of this kind meet only 3 or 4 times a year, which is too few to build the level of trust necessary to make them as useful as they can be.

Board members, and especially the Chair, can play a critical role in helping the CEO deal with the most difficult problems. That requires a board-CEO relationship in which the board is aligned with the CEO’s mission, vision and strategy, and the CEO feels comfortable in discussing his or her shortfalls candidly. It means board discussion throughout the year of the most important strategic issues facing the company. It requires board members who are both supportive and utterly independent and candid – for private companies as well as publicly held companies. And for nonprofits, it means educating the trustees to the point where their oversight is both informed and rigorous.

Finally, CEOs who are conscious of the dangers of isolation often seek the assistance of an executive coach who is independent, interested only in making the CEO a more effective leader and unafraid to tell it like it is. Tom Landry, long-time coach of the Dallas Cowboys, put it well when talking about football coaches, said, “A coach is someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you could be.”


As always, I welcome your comments, thoughts and reactions.

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