Loneliness and the CEO

It happens all the time with my clients. As we talk, as we unfold, a sort of psychic bond gets formed. A paper I read recently talked about how much greater is the role of the unconscious than ever imagined before. And equally compelling, said the author, the unconscious leaps out of the mind of one and connects with the other; the boss sneezes and everyone catches a cold.

My client was talking about his overwhelming anxiety. It’d gotten so bad that he’d felt paralyzed—unable even to get to the office. Later, after working through those issues, I asked, “And how are your employees feeling?”

“Anxious, worried about running out of cash,” and the light bulb turned on, “…just like me.”

Yup, I thought, the CEO sneezes, the unconscious leaps from one to the other, feelings are contagious.

I remember when I was a young VC; I think even my hair was mostly black at the time. I was working almost daily for one of my portfolio companies (“Gone native,” as an elder VC put it to me later—but more on that in another post). I stood before the small, nascent team and present the product plan my team had developed. And, as soon as I stood up, the CEO, who’d been standing at the back of the room, turned and walked out.

I furiously called him on it. “I left,” he said, “because I knew I could trust you.” But your action sent the opposite message, I told him. You sent the message that what I was saying was unimportant. Achoo.

So what’s our responsibility as leaders, co-workers, spouses, companions, parents, children, and friends when our unconscious decides to telegraph a message we didn’t intend or spread a feeling we’d rather keep inside?

The question itself is dangerous because, if approached from the wrong angle it could induce a sense of responsibility for others’ feelings that-quite frankly– would emerge as a Monster in Your Head. Even the CEO isn’t responsible for how an employee feels about their job. But there is an undeniable, implicit shared mutality of experience (as one fourth grader in this amazing documentary about teaching feeling and empathy in a class room put it: when one of us is unhappy, we’re all unhappy).

The fact that we, as co-workers, co-create the emotional as well as the financial experience of the company makes this report from CNN remarkable. A client sent me the link and, after I got over the macabre satisfaction of having the purpose of my work affirmed, I was struck by the notion that the dominant emotional aliment felt by CEOs was loneliness.

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!

Henry V—William Shakespeare

In other words, it sucks to be the king (or the CEO, or the boss, or the captain or whoever it is in whose hands we collectively place our feelings). And if this is the dominant feeling, and if we unconsciously infect others with our feelings, then is it any wonder that businesses are such lonely places?

Michael Carroll, after he wrote Awake at Work but before he published The Mindful Leader, published an article in which he says that “the best leadership first occurs from the inside out—offering to others a part of ourselves that inspires them.” Although he doesn’t make this explicit connection, he’s in effect suggesting making the unconscious sharing–the infecting, if you will–a conscious act:

“There is a fundamental human gesture that must take place first, before any leader can guide, direct, or point the way. Leaders must first open. They must step beyond the boundaries of what is familiar and routine and directly touch the people and environment they want to inspire. Leading others requires that we first open ourselves to the world around us.”

If he’s right about the need for inside out leadership, Carroll’s not only come up with an intriguing manifesto for leadership but an antidote to what ails the CEOs in all of us. The best way to overcome the inevitable loneliness of life at the top may be to connect and mindfully attend to the process that’s already underway—the unconscious sharing that undergirds every relationship.

  • kareem

    Another wonderful post, Jerry – I appreciate you for sharing your wisdom and stories.

    Can you elaborate on what Carroll means by “opening”? I read it as being vulnerable and connecting on a human level with those she’s trying to inspire…

    If that’s the case, there’s a tension to manage between being open and being able to make difficult decisions. I don’t buy the “infallible CEO” (read: closed, tough-guy decision maker) model of leadership that’s so often written about in the media. But there is a line between being closed and being open that many successful leaders I’ve encountered don’t cross – they connect and inspire without giving so much of themselves that they lose their mystique (and thus influence).

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Kareem. Here’s more of what Michael Carroll has to say:
      “[T]o lead from a position of openness is to be undefended, engaged, and raw. At times such vulnerability can be freeing, because we stop wrestling with our personal anxiety, resentment, and fear and simply expose ourselves fully to our world. Yet such vulnerability can be terrifying, since we can’t rely on familiar postures, emotions, or clichés for comfort and reassurance.
      The suggestion that we lead by being vulnerable may seem absurd. Leaders, it is typically believed, should be equipped with all kinds of armor. They should be invincible and potent, able to bear the slings and arrows of workplace competition and hostility. Usually we think of being vulnerable at work as being weak, inadequate, shamefully flawed. From a Buddhist perspective, however, open vulnerability is not a weakness but a wisdom that is poised, skillful, and astute.”
      So in a sense, it’s not unlike what I’ve written about in other posts…being open to who you are and what is also means facing the realities of the company. I often imagine how the world might be a bit different if George Bush had been open to saying, after the invasion of Iraq, “We made a mistake. There were no weapons of mass destruction. And while we take full responsibility for our actions, we’d welcome the world’s help in fixing what we’ve broken.”
      That’s open leadership.

      • kareem

        Thanks Jerry. I agree that there’s strength in vulnerability. One needs to be confident in one’s self to be ok with being vulnerable. Leaders who have this quality are much more inspiring than those who have heaps of impenetrable armor. I connect with and want to be led by humans, not robots :)

        That said, I find idea of exploring where the line is fascinating. How much do you share as a leader? Do you share strategically (some might say manipulatively?) Or should you be who you are, and let the chips fall where they may?

        • jerrycolonna

          Of course it’s possible to share too much…and in doing so we’re in danger of thrusting our emotional selves onto the other, asking them, in effect to carry the burden of being us.
          But in my experience, most leaders err on the side of not being open enough. So I’d say, to answer your questions, it’s a combination of the above…kinda being who you are and letting the chips fall as they may BUT being aware of the effect on others and recognizing that you need to be more discreet (or strategic as you put it).

  • https://twitter.com/johnmccarthy johnmccarthy

    Gordon Gecko in “Wall Street” said “If you want a friend, get a dog.” Contrast that with the common start-up dynamic where CEOs and employees are often friends, lovers, intimate confidantes, etc. There will come a time in the life of any start-up CEO where they will need to find a balance between these 2 divergent paths which works for them and their company. Often, the CEO will over-correct and start shopping for a dog. This conscious decision to become “more professional” can lead to the loneliness you describe and the shutting down of the Openness. Correction will occur again and the cycle will be repeated as the CEO and company finds the unique blend that works in their unique situation.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

    • jerrycolonna

      Well put John. The challenge is, though, can the leader (and the company) survive the cycling through?
      by the way…I should have included this link in the post…the entire Michael Carroll article can be downloaded here. That article plus a bunch of other interesting pieces.

  • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

    Great post, Jerry.

    If there’s one criticism I’ve received, not often, but has come up from time to time over the years, is that I’m too open.

    (oh, wait….was my saying that…. too open?!)

    So this CEO thingy I’m doing should get interesting pretty quickly.

  • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

    It’s that time of the week again. Time to examine the “Monster in my head”.

    Your post this week really resonates. I first experienced the loneliness’ as a young airline Captain. In my early days as a first officer I said to the Captain – so what’s the difference, we can both fly the plane, we both have the same license but you get paid more. His answer – when you sit in this seat you’re accountable and responsible.

    I learned what that meant a few years later on a trip to Paducah Ky. Air traffic indicated that they could vector me into the airport ahead of a Level 5 thunderstorm (very large). I “took the bait”. They steered me right into the storm and during the approach I had so much water on the aircraft I thought it going to flame the engines out. We bounced up and down violently as we approached the runway. Finally at minimums (200 feet cloud ceiling and a ½ mile visibility) we saw the runway.

    Now for my next surprise – they had just resurfaced the runway. We didn’t land hard enough to break the surface tension between the wheels and the tarmac, and so we ended up sliding over a mile sideways in the aircraft. After getting it under control I looked up and saw solid red lights on the edge of the runway… 1,000 feet to go to the end. Speed should have been 15kts instead we were over 100kts.

    And off the end we went. Everyone survived, no bumps, no scrapes, no nothing. I sat there starring into the field thanking the man upstairs for watching over us. Next step – get the folks off the plane AND meet the officials coming to the plane. Guess what? The NTSB (safety board) had just landed there before the storm and had witnessed the whole event.

    Talk about feeling lonely. The passengers were gone, the first officer said – “this one is yours and I’ll see you in the cafeteria.” Now I was responsible and accountable. Long story short it all worked out – but I learned a valuable lesson.

    If you want to sit in the seat – then you have to be prepared to be lonely. Openness really helps but as the lawyers and PR folks will tell you, that only gets you so far.

    By definition the chair is lonely – after all it’s not a bench.

    • jerrycolonna

      I hear ya Cranstone and your image of the chair reminds me of saying we use often in Buddhist circles…we refer to someone demonstrating real leadership as “taking their seat.” It comes from the posture of the meditator…you take your seat to meditate; you take your seat to lead. And you’re right, ultimately, it’s just you at the controls (thanks too by the way for the terrific story about your life as a pilot).

      • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

        Had one of those lonely moments yesterday – so bad I nearly called. However by the afternoon it had transitioned into some far more positive.

        However I did learn something along the way that relates to being lonely. After the “lonely” moment I headed out to a meeting and for once it was not software/tech related. I had a chance to sit with someone older and wiser and “just talk”. As you can imagine I was still ticked from earlier on.

        She listened intently and then reached over and patted me on the arm – she said “there’s your answer”. She had picked the point in my story where I was relating the argument and the other person had said to me – “I don’t want a relationship, it’s just business”. Talk about feeling lonely.

        But the listener was correct – there was the answer. At the end of the conversation I asked her to sum me up. And here’s where I learned something new…

        The word she used was “Authentic”. (I modified our core values on our web site to reflect this). There’s no question that at times the CEO’s job is the loneliest on the planet. The single chair offers little comfort – but as she reminded me. Don’t ever stop being authentic, even if it leaves you feeling a little lonely at times.

        • jerrycolonna

          Authentic is a powerful salve. As powerful as Open. And “just talk” is medicine. Feel free to call or write.

        • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

          Cranstone you share really good stories. Thank you.

          • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

            You’re welcome.

            I really have to thank Jerry for allowing me to post. What you see in these posts is really me. Authentic is a powerful slave and you have to balance it carefully with other things. The listener yesterday also used the word open to describe me.

            What really happened yesterday is that I temporarily lost my way. When I flew we never used the term lost – we just became temporarily unaware of our position… now that’s real loneliness :)

            I allowed myself to become caught up in a circular argument where instinctively I knew it was never going to work out. It’s that forcing the square peg in the round hole syndrome. Both sides lost their composure and even though a resolution was worked out – you know it’s never going to be the same.

            Sometimes doing the right thing is so hard vs. making things right. Yesterday in the end I made things right and it was not authentic, that’s why I left feeling lonely. As Jerry says, be careful because authentic is a powerful slave. Today I feel less of a slave and more of a master. I just needed a quick lesson to remind me what’s what.

            Thanks for listening.

          • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

            “What really happened yesterday is that I temporarily lost my way. When I flew we never used the term lost – we just became temporarily unaware of our position… now that’s real loneliness :)”

            That feeling of being temporarily unaware of our position. That’s really well put. I had one of those last weekend.

            I guess the power of talking-as-a-salve is that verbalizing the problem helps you define it, and defining it helps you chunk it into more manageable pieces. And possibly mourn the pieces that are damaged or unfixable. And appreciate or celebrate the pieces that remain available to you, and weave them together in a new way to action them forward.

          • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

            Absolutely. Since turning 30 I’ve become a life long learner (up until I was doing the Pilot thing). So now I live to learn so to speak. I try and take each moment as an opportunity to learn more. yesterday was good for me. I got to remember what it’s like when you try and do the right thing but instead settle for making things right. Communication is hard at the best of times, when you start shouting it’s no longer communication. And therein lay the lesson – knowing the pointers that will show you when you’re about to become temporarily unsure of your position.

            In flying you live by the clock and the weather. Everything boils down to those two things. There’s a rule that says if you’re going to be later than plus or minus 3 minutes over a reporting point you must notify ATC. So as you can imagine I live my life + or – 3 minutes. It’s incredibly boring but you’re always where your meant to be.

            Recently I stopped wearing a watch – my lesson for myself – become unsure of your position. For the clock that runs continuously in my head that’s hard to do, but if you can let go a little, accept a “little loneliness” now and then you can continue to learn and discover things about yourself.

            I was lucky yesterday that after 45 minutes of wondering around being lonely I bumped into someone who pointed me in the right direction. All I had to do was listen. And therein lies another lesson.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com/ daveschappell

    This is something I really wrestled with early on as the CEO, and a lesson people tried to teach me even earlier when working at a larger company — that one of my biggest strengths was my ability to spread passion to others, but that when it turned negative, that I had to be aware that it was just as contagious. I’ve worked really hard to keep my down days/hours to myself, but one thing I wrestle with, and I think many others wrestle with, is how to do this over a long haul. It’s easy to reduce anxiety when things are going really well (despite you wanting them to go even better/faster), but much more difficult when you’re truly not sure how things are going to pan out, or if you’re going to succeed. Then, it can feel like you’re purposefully lying/deluding people, when really, you’re just trying to make the best decisions based on where you are ‘right now’. I think this is when the anxiety/deer-in-the-headlights behaviors really kick in, at least for me. It’s why we need talents like you, to help us with perspective and a plan that we can re-start working against.

    Thanks for a great post, Jerry.

    • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

      Dave thanks for sharing that. You have a knack for defining that fine line.

      Off topic question…..I was sure your name looked familiar….I think we were at Sodom On the Schuykill at the same time. Your name keeps popping up on my “Do You Know…” prompt on Linked In.

      • http://www.nosnivelling.com/ daveschappell

        Not sure what ‘sodom on the schuylkill’ is… is that a reference to U. Penn? If so, I was there from ’97-’98 at Wharton. If a reference to something else Schuylkill related, it’s possible. I grew up near Reading, PA and went to Schuylkill Valley High School (class of ’86) and then to Penn State (’90) — feel free to e-mail/tweet me directly (dave -at- nosnivelling -dot- com)

        • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

          Wharton! I was 1997. Directed the Follies. Friends w Menekse, Joe

          Indeed I’ll DM you.

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks Dave…I think, over the long haul, it’s just something that you have to aware of and keep working with. Having coach-like relationship with a board member can help (or a mentor or any one else who can emotionally separate themselves from the situation). All of that helps.
      But you’re right…one of the hardest times to remember this is when you’re facing that moment of uncertainty I wrote about in the post on the subject.

  • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

    again, I can’t even begin to comment.

    • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

      Charlie, when you are ready, you are among friends.


      • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

        lol. I’m just saying it’s a huge topic for me (and the other founders I advise).

        • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

          It’s kind of amazing how quickly “the monster in your head” transforms into “the elephant in the room” of the business.

          Not you specifically, Charlie, but each one of us.

          A big, fat, sweaty, snorting elephant.

          Ewww! Get that thing outta here!!

          • jerrycolonna

            And the best way to deal with the elephant is to name it…talk it through.

  • http://twitter.com/chadmaue chadmaue

    The King, CEO, or whatever title of authority you want to give it, has a responsibility and a role to play. Looking into my own experience, I’d say that the anxiety and loneliness occurs when this responsibility is being shirked.

    The minds a trickster at times, and does a good job of convincing you and those around you that you are living the role and owning the responsibility, but if you are feeling that anxiety/loneliness and look a little deeper, you’ll likely find yourself hiding away in past memories or future fantasies – totally neglecting your responsibility to organize and direct the current reality.

    • jerrycolonna

      Chadmaue…welcome to The Monster! It seems to me that you’re referring more to guilt than loneliness per se…although of course that kind of guilt can lead to isolation.

  • jchewitt

    This encouraged me to ponder about some of my own behavior. It also created a half-formed thought about appropriate personal boundaries in the workplace. Everyone in a company is going to revert to a similar unconscious wavelength. It’s tough to distinguish between your own feelings and the spillover that you get from others.

    Thanks for the link to the Carroll article.

    • jerrycolonna

      Good point. Brings up the notion of how do we protect ourselves (in all situations) from the unconscious infections while simultaneously staying open to the possibility of genuine connection.

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  • panterosa,

    Your post reminds me of the simple meditation exercise of breathing from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which you mentioned in another post. By inhaling, you take your surroundings, the world, the universe into yourself. On the exhale you put yourself back into that world. The concept of inspiration comes from breathing life into things, and I see this connecting to the openness you mention. Open both ways, open in equal measure. Our breath is our life. I drew this, after reading that book, as a swinging door letter “I”, “I” opened to let in, and “I” swung back out to release.

    I enjoyed the full article you sent the link on for Inside-Out Leadership. It mentions an Olympic figure skater knowing vulnerability in executing jumps. Having sketched the recent Olympic figure skaters for my work, especially pairs, the work in tandem shows that open trust and vulnerability mentioned as necessary to succeed. I was gratified to see Carroll specifically reference skaters since I have been drawing them for a while now for the very reason he writes of them.

    If only disqus allowed graphic posts as well as text.

  • Jeff Walker

    The lonely CEO makes me think of how important it is for me to find others who i can “mirror” myself with – will reflect who i am – someone i can be true with – be partners with. It is harder in a corporate environment but identifying a few people in my firm, board, life, who i can be open, honest and connected with is so important to combat the loneliness. YPO has forums, venture partners have their other partners (when it is working)…who do each of us have as connected mirrors? I am not lonely because of my mirror partners.

  • Jeff Walker

    The lonely CEO makes me think of how important it is for me to find others who i can “mirror” myself with – will reflect who i am – someone i can be true with – be partners with. It is harder in a corporate environment but identifying a few people in my firm, board, life, who i can be open, honest and connected with is so important to combat the loneliness. YPO has forums, venture partners have their other partners (when it is working)…who do each of us have as connected mirrors? I am not lonely because of my mirror partners.

    • jerrycolonna

      Exactly so. And I’d add that you’re openness allows the mirroring to occur.