Is leadership loneliness a myth?

I am sure the saying “it’s lonely at the top” is a familiar one. However very few of us make it to the ‘top’ and hence never have the firsthand experience of it. 

For the sake of simplicity, I am using ‘top’ to mean, pinnacle leadership well defined by titles such as Chairman, Managing Director, CEO, etc. Similarly, I am defining lonely to be equated to ‘alone in the process of doing one’s job’ OR ‘alone in fulfilling obligations of a professional entity’. 

Working in teams is effective for all functions within a company except when it comes to this pivotal role, the rules change. The role of an MD/CEO has multiple facets and expectations linked to it. I tend to view this in 3 distinct sections. These are: 

1. The person he/she is 

2. The meaning of their role to internal stakeholders (primarily employees) 

3. The company they represent (as the face of the company to the external world) 

The person they are

The problem with this view is that the individual is lost because of the chair he/she occupies. The entire universe is unable to differentiate between the human being and the chair that he/she occupies. And this is true no matter how vociferously one might want to state that this is simply not true. I have often used a simple example to explain this point: 

Outside our offices is a tea stall on the side of the road. If I as the CEO of the company am found sipping tea (by myself) the following interpretations of this simple action are possible. 

1. I like the tea served there

2. The tea served by the organization is horrible

3. I am too cheap to drink good tea

4. The company is in trouble, hence the CEO drinks tea at a roadside shack

5. The CEO is a fraud because he drives a fancy car, wears expensive clothes but wants to show that he is connected to the common man

6. The CEO is confused. If the resources he has doesn’t get him good tea, how will he ever get results for the organization

Now think of the possible interpretations if the act of drinking tea alone is replaced with having tea with

1. A single male employee

2. A single female employee

3. Multiple male employees

4. Multiple female employees

5. Multiple levels of employees (different functions)

6. Employees of one grade or level

You can see where this is headed.

At one level we can argue that these comments shouldn’t matter. But if the stock market is an example, the sentiment in an organization makes it function like a well-tuned machine or can cause it to completely break down.

The meaning of their role to internal stakeholders (primarily employees)

Employees, contractors, vendors and part-timers are all internal stakeholders. But the most crucial opinion is that of the vast majority who are generally full-time employees. The CEO is under constant scrutiny. From the moment he/she walks into the office, to the time he/she leaves the office and all the time in between, he/she is being watched. Their walk, facial expressions and even their clothes are assessed as a mark of the company’s future. The level of scrutiny and its interpretation is best illustrated with an example. 

This happened very early in my stint as CEO of SAGE Publications. I was informed by my immediate team that there was a rumor that the company was going through troubled times. I expected this reaction to surface the moment I took the chair, but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity. I started having conversations within the company but outside my immediate team. These would be junior employees, some with long stints in the company and many times it was the rung that reported to my team. I pieced together conversations and connected dots to see the picture emerge. I learnt the following: 

1. I was having too many lengthy meetings with my finance director and some were very animated. We have glass cabins in the office and hence anyone walking outside can see those inside.

2. When I walked from the car to my office, I rarely looked up and had a concerned look on my face.

3. At the lunch table I rarely made eye-contact with anyone and sat almost silent in what was otherwise a busy cafeteria.

When you see these random acts in isolation, they don’t amount to much. But together they ended up building a narrative that communicated that the company was in trouble. I changed the way I approached the company. When getting out of my car, I continue to pause for a moment and forget whatever is going through my mind. I put on my biggest smile, get rid of any sunglasses I wear, and I make eye-contact with every employee entering the office with me. I make sure to stop and ask them about their day, the weekend or their general health. I never hold myself back from paying someone a compliment, whenever I can. These gestures changed the general sentiment in the office. People would smile and within no time, everyone believed things were all right. Since 2007 this has led to exceptional performance and growth of the company. It has helped us become a certified Great Place to Work and the CEO is seen as one of their own. 

The company they represent (the face of the company to the external world)

The MD/CEO is the face of the company to the external world. It’s about the person occupying the chair, their vision, thoughts, and conduct. Their leadership is a function of the person they are and what the internal stakeholders believe them to be. This coupled with business policies build the brand of the company. It is because of this that the MD/CEO has to be extremely cautious EVERY MINUTE of EVERY DAY. Their personal conduct makes or breaks the reputation of the organization. Social media has made it impossible for a leader to remain hidden or to be under multiple layers of security. Family pictures, holidays, promotions, policies, political comments et al add to the brand of the MD/CEO. 

When viewed collectively, it explains why any MD/CEO is constantly under pressure. One would think that he/she would be able to ‘off-load’ some of this stress, but it is easier said than done. A word or comment out of place and you could have multiple sections of stakeholders up in arms. Some situations could get out of hand and containment impossible. These pressures add to the basic stress of delivering on the one given the objective of the role – to achieves the company’s financial objectives. While financial objectives are supposed to be shared responsibilities of the Senior Management Group, it is almost always the CEO who has to find solutions to complex problems, deliver on financial objectives in the short term, ensure that the longer-term future of the organization is secured. 

It is all but impossible to have any confidant in the organization. Each individual is affected by any information, strategy or fear shared by the leader. Every decision taken affects hundreds if not thousands of individuals. The Senior Management Group is expected to provide input and suggest direction. But at the end of the day, it’s the leader’s job to take the final decision. 

It is because of this, that it truly is lonely at the top. 

The article was originally published in “The Smart Manager Magazine, Sep-Oct 2019 issue) 


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