The Cure for the Loneliness of Command (2019)

Manfred Kets de Vries

CEOs are quickly derailed without a sense of community

The phrase “it’s lonely at the top” sounds cliché, but for many top executives, it is a harsh reality. A CEO’s responsibilities tend to come with sleepless nights and constant worry about having made the right decisions. The psychological pressure can inflict an emotional strain that most employees will never experience. In the absence of a support system, burnout becomes a real threat.


Despite how dangerous the loneliness of command can be, it’s a problem that is rarely addressed upfront. Instead, many C-suite executives make every effort to keep up a hero façade which just compounds the pressure.


The psychodynamic forces at play


Hierarchy creates a power distance. The weight of responsibility for others makes it harder to speak to anyone with vulnerability and true honesty. This unease goes both ways: Even if CEOs try to minimise the distance, their subordinates will always be cognisant of their boss’ ability to make decisions that can dramatically affect their careers. CEOs must be close enough to relate to their subordinates, but also distanced enough to motivate them. 


Given the complex psychological forces at play, executives would be wise to pay attention to the following risks when assuming an upper management position:


  • Becoming the target of hostile and envious feelings: C-suite executives possess many privileges that others long to possess. Although we may not like to admit it, envy is ingrained in the human psyche. To manage these hostile feelings, C-suite executives may try to downplay their own capabilities, sometimes to the extent of becoming paralysed and unable to make decisions. The unconscious fear of standing out and being rejected, criticised or ostracised contributes to their sense of isolation.


  • Living in an echo chamber: CEOs are often given limited and filtered information about their operations, employees and customers. Those in charge must realise that their subordinates tend to agree with them. Many subordinates will never challenge their bosses’ thinking, preferring instead to tell them what they like to hear. As a result, many CEOs find themselves increasingly isolated from reality.


  • Becoming paranoid: CEOs face many threats, both obvious and hidden. For many C-suite executives, being always on guard is a rational response to a world in which they are encircled by enemies. Vigilance is simply an extension of their drive to survive. The problem is when suspicion that is healthy (i.e. moderated by a sense of reality) turns into full-fledged paranoia. Loneliness increases that risk.


What’s a CEO to do?


With all these pressures, what can C-suite executives do to cope with loneliness? My recommendations fall under three pillars:


1. Be aware and mentally prepared


Landing at the top of the leadership pyramid doesn’t mean one suddenly has all the answers. Even the most talented leaders have blind spots. As a first step, all new CEOs should ideally receive mentoring by people who have been in that situation. They should realise that acting like the Lone Ranger can be detrimental to their health. They owe it to themselves – and to their organisation – to prepare for the high psychological cost of success and power.


2. Build an external network of support


Some top executives are fortunate to have a significant other who can take on the role of confidante. But many fear burning out a relationship with constant talk about their professional concerns. One way is to meet more peers. For example, for many participants the annual CEO seminar that I run at INSEAD is the first opportunity they have to deal with the loneliness of leadership. They soon make friends with whom they can share their concerns – people outside their chain of command. Alternatively, consultants or coaches can provide a safe space in which CEOs can discuss their challenges. A no-brainer solution consists of making non-work-related friends. If life consists of only work and no play, executives are at risk of losing their sense of balance. 


3. Express gratitude


Another way of slowing down the process of isolation is by expressing gratitude to the people around us. It is a powerful tool to increase well-being in all sorts of settings. A grateful attitude helps us feel positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health and deal with adversity. Used authentically, it can be a transformative organisational practice. 


Life is too hard to be alone and sometimes life is too good to be alone. Not only is loneliness our biggest fear, it is also our ultimate poverty. Loneliness is also a warning sign that something needs to change. C-suite executives should pay heed and realise that the antidote to loneliness is community.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge.

Copyright INSEAD 2019

INSEAD Knowledge, 2019

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