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Why It Can Be “Lonely at the Top” for Executives

CEO, Executive Leadership, Team Building Tips...

A German philosopher named Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote ‘'Auf der Höhe muss es einsam sein,” which in reference to power and leadership, roughly translated to “at that height it must be lonely”.

It is something that many senior executives experience and realize, after working decades to find themselves at the top of their career.  What factors contribute to a sense of isolation when a career professional has reached the top ranks?  What should executives do to counter some of the factors that lead to social and professional isolation, once they have reached a position of power in their business or with an employer?

Few CEOs Receive Advice

In a recent study published by the Center for Leadership Development and Research (CLDR) through Stanford Graduate School of Business, almost 2 out of every 3 CEO’s surveyed revealed that they do not receive advice, coaching or guidance.  The perception of leadership as a role where the leader “already knows everything there is to know” is stifling to the continued growth and development of senior executives, and subordinates are often too intimidated to offer ideas and advice; a habit that can cut leadership off from innovation.

Making Hard Decisions

As with any leadership profession, CEOs, presidents and founders are often required to make hard choices to benefit the business; and frequently to the detriment of employees, partners and investors.   The ability to make the difficult decision, especially one that the manager or executive knows will not be popular within the corporate ranks is a hallmark of a strong leader.  However, it also makes the executive a target for the emotional fallout.

When it comes to difficult decisions like layoffs, downsizing, closing divisions or moving operations to another region, a leader shoulders the brunt of the dissatisfaction and consequences.   When making a choice that puts business interests above protecting jobs, and potentially contradicting the culture of the organization, executives lose favourability among staff and subordinates, which can further isolate them from the “team”.

The Perception of Accessibility and Generosity Changes

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, M. Ena Inesi of the London Business School and Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg Graduate School of Business, revealed how power and senior leadership positions alter the perception people have of executives, presidents and CEOs, but also the level of trust these executives have in other people.

Inesi and Galinsky suggest that the higher up you go on the corporate ladder, the more you are apt to distrust new relationships, or acts of generosity from other people.  Being in a position of power makes it difficult to completely assume the sincerity of friendships or altruistic acts, and inadvertently, senior executives can decline offers, for fear of a retributive cost of “returning the favor”.   Over time the habit (per authors) becomes subconscious and automatic, and executives can become “shut down” when it comes to forming new business or interpersonal relationships.

What Can Executives Do to Remain Approachable?

  • Ask for advice, not just feedback. Support an internal culture of continuous learning, by remaining coachable and open to ideas by asking for them.
  • Make staff part of the development of strategic KPI’s and goal setting for the organization. Help make employees feel that they are part of the successful direction of the corporation.
  • Work on being less formal (occasionally). Participate in staff events and seek out opportunities to become involved with employees at all levels of the business.
  • Offer mentoring time to young staff members. Share your career wisdom and advice, and stay in touch with what motivates entry-level workers in your organization.  Inspire them to contribute creative and innovative ideas.
  • Work outside of your designated space. Some of the most approachable CEOs are found on a laptop, working among their staff in shared co-working spaces.  Not only will you dissolve the idea that senior executives are “cut off” from the rest of the team, you’ll be able to observe new talent, share ideas, and foster close relationships with staff at all levels.