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PART ONE: 11 Strategies to Tackle Loneliness at The Top

Posted by Brian Maphosa

It is incredibly lonely at the top and a number of CEOs testify to it.

As according to the Harvard Business Review, at least half of CEOs express feelings of loneliness and 61% even believe loneliness hinders their job performance.

Also cited is that the biggest problems CEOs face is not having someone to talk to about their business. So, the reality is that loneliness affects many CEO’s and is haunting corporates be it large or the SME sector.

There is probably a need to clarify what is meant by loneliness.  To borrow from the book Krishnamurti’s Journal, ‘it is good to be alone, to be far away from the world’ and generally there is that desire in us to be in that state of being alone. That is why so often we take a holiday or invest in a residential estate away from it all, away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

However, when we talk of loneliness at the top we are talking of ‘…that sense of existence in which there is no relationship with another, no sense of communication with another, thoroughly enclosed.” Krishnamurti’s Journal. It is not as if the CEO has any shortage of people around him/her. Day in and day out, he/she is in meetings, at functions, etc. The loneliness we are talking about is that failure to make deep human connections at work, its being “lonely in a crowd.”

What we need to understand is that we may be CEOs but the ‘me’ in each one of us still exists.  We are ‘me’ first and CEO or business owner second.

If not properly dealt with the loneliness can be painful. There may be attempts to escape from it, attempts to cover it up or rationalise it, but these are not effective ways of dealing with it.

Loneliness, according to Wikipedia is “the unpleasant experience that occurs when a person’s network of social relations is deficient in some important way”. According to the RHR International 2012 CEO Snapshot Survey™ the “intensity of the CEO’s job, coupled with the scarcity of peers to confide in, creates potentially dangerous feelings of isolation among chief executives.”

What causes CEO Loneliness?

Obviously, this is a complex subject but some of the explanations for CEO loneliness are:

  • The view among some CEOs that very few people understand the burdens their job carries. For them there is therefore generally no one to talk to among family members or ‘the boys or girls’ the CEO grew up with that understands the intricacies of the job they now handle.
  • There is also the desire or tendency to hide the vulnerabilities the CEO faces and for one to appear all confident and achieving. In the process of hiding the vulnerability, the CEO then builds a shield of protection thereby distancing him/herself from others.
  • There are also the pitfalls of organisational politics. The CEO is limited as to how much they can discuss with their team about deep seated issues without exposing themselves to the ugly side of organisational politics. Real or not there are some ‘team members’ whether out of spite or general ambition would love to see the CEO fall. Unfortunately, that is the reality or falsehood the leader must contend with in running a business. That unfortunately puts him/her in that loneliness corner.
  • Some of the causes unfortunately are also the leader’s own making. Once in the CEO or leadership position some leaders may feel the need to have a change of ‘guard’ of their friends. People who were genuine in their friendship with the now CEO are side-lined because it is no longer ‘appropriate’ to be seen hanging out with the Jonas’s. In their place now are people seeking to ‘please the boss’ and who may not necessarily be genuine in their relationship.
  • One of the major causes of loneliness at the top is the amount of work CEOs do. According to the Harvard Business Review, the average American CEO works 62.5 hours a week, versus 44 hours by the average worker. That obviously leaves little time to cultivate outside relationships.

What Can the CEO do About Being Lonely?

Anyway, the main objective of this article is to articulate what the CEO do to address the problem.

As Brene Brown says, “A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”

This issue of the CEO’s loneliness is therefore not a small matter. Loneliness goes beyond affecting the leader and those close to him or her but can hurt the business as well. Loneliness comes with such issues as exhaustion, stress, depression, sleep deprivation, and strokes etc. As one 2015 Brigham Young University study claimed, loneliness is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

It is therefore critical to have strategies in place to deal with this issue. Again, instead of leaving the CEO to deal with it as his/her own problem, the issue of loneliness needs to be on the company’s items to deal with. The Chairman or the board needs to be alert to this matter and take preventative measures for this.

To get Part 2 of this article which lays out the 11 strategies to manage loneliness at the top access the full article HERE:

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