Photo: Peter Heilmann via Flickr
From extravagant compensation packages to heated boardroom clashes to dramatic exits, misbehaving chief executive officers dominated management headlines in 2011. Few people are feeling particularly sorry for CEOs right now, and that’s unlikely to change. CEOs have power, prestige, influence, and wealth — the general perception is that they have it made. So I imagine most of the general public will scoff when I say that today’s business leaders face some genuine troubles, not least of which is loneliness.Often dismissed and rarely discussed, many CEOs are plagued by feelings of isolation once they take on the top job. Findings from our inaugural CEO Snapshot Survey™ (PDF)reveal that half of CEOs report experiencing feelings of loneliness in their role, and of this group, 61 per cent believe it hinders their performance. First-time CEOs are particularly susceptible to this isolation. Nearly 70 per cent of first-time CEOs who experience loneliness report that the feelings negatively affect their performance.
These feelings are not limited to CEOs. In fact, loneliness and its repercussions can affect any individual with newfound authority. Leaders owe it to themselves — and more importantly, their organisations — to make sure this isolation does not impact their effectiveness. There are three steps to mitigating loneliness in positions of leadership:
1. Accept Reality
Simply acknowledging feelings of loneliness or isolation can be a relief in itself. Constantly denying these emotions in exchange for a (false) sense of self-assurance is exhausting. Leaders should take a moment each day to process and accept how complex, and even scary, their responsibilities can be. The more accepting a leader is of this reality, the easier it will be to seek and accept support in dealing with it. Moreover, CEOs cannot view this acceptance as a failure — there is a reason why they were chosen for the role, and loneliness does not translate to defeat.
2. Seek Support
A reliable support system is crucial to CEO achievement, and CEOs should begin cultivating a group of trusted advisors from day one. There is no single answer regarding who should fill this role. Depending on the CEO’s comfort level, an advisor could be a trusted board member, a spouse, or even a past CEO. Most importantly, this support system must work in two ways. Not only do these advisors provide a safe outlet for a CEO to express concerns, but they must also reliably provide honest, unvarnished feedback. This collaborative relationship does not privilege one person over another. Instead, it allows a CEO to regain perspective, align priorities, and adapt management practices.
In many cases, learning to accept feedback is a challenge in itself, especially if a CEO has created an armour of hubris or overconfidence. Peeling away these layers and learning to accept feedback from trusted advisors ultimately makes for a more resilient leader.
3. Keep Moving
The burden of isolation can often lead to inaction, to feeling “frozen” and unable to process the next step or the next decision. Because the big-picture strategy decisions a CEO must make can be overwhelming (particularly for first time CEOs), it is easy to become mired in small details and push aside the decisions that really matter. Tackling the major obstacles head-on will increase confidence and make the next big judgment call easier. To get moving, a CEO should start by selecting one challenge. This challenge, no matter how complex, should be approached by gathering data, looking to advisors for feedback and support, making the decision and then moving on to the next problem. While CEOs must not forget to include their senior team in the deliberation process, it should be remembered that the final choice is ultimately theirs. As frontiersman David Crockett was fond of saying, “Make sure you are right, and then go ahead.” Reaching out to talented team members and a support team will reduce feelings of isolation and give leaders the confidence to “go ahead” with tackling the obstacles to their organisations’ success.
Anyone who has stepped into a new leadership role knows that the less-than-positive feelings that come with authority are often unexpected. CEOs and other leaders go to great lengths to maintain a façade of unflappable confidence — concealing any insecurities or feelings of anxiety. But this cycle creates dangerous problems for both leaders and their organisations as a whole. In today’s high-stakes business environment, leaders cannot afford to ignore doubts and anxieties that risk impacting their entire organisation. Now is the time for leaders to acknowledge these feelings and work proactively to defeat them.
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