Not So Lonely At the Top

governance transition leadership transition Nov 02, 2021

- By Sophie Pinkoski

In July 2021, Lifeworks and Deloitte Canada found that half of the 1,100 leaders they surveyed have seriously contemplated leaving their role throughout the pandemic.

With CEOs already experiencing high pressure in their role, the stress of the pandemic has only compounded on this even more.

CEOs are often expected to be capable of handling anything, especially in times of crisis, when their team is in need of a strong leader. But the position this puts a CEO in is a lonely one. As someone with high-stakes decision making powers at the top, the CEO finds themselves isolated. The stigma attached to leaders admitting their weaknesses or vulnerability makes it even more difficult for them to reach out for help.  

This executive isolation comes with mental health issues including imposter syndrome, pent up emotion, and burnout. With this in mind, it makes sense that Harvard Business Review found that

61% of CEOs felt the mental distress of loneliness most impacted their ability to do their job.

The mental and emotional strain brought on by the pandemic means many leaders are grappling for a semblance of control in an unpredictable situation, even if the only control they feel they have is quitting. But how can CEOs maintain that crucial sense of control in their role without feeling compelled to walk away completely? 

Dance floor vs. balcony – In terms of the action surrounding an organization’s projects, the dance floor is where everything happens, yet the CEO is the one overlooking it all from the balcony. It’s important for CEOs to leave the bubble of their office to get a good sense of what’s happening on the ground floor. Staying connected to your team will help you maintain perspective. 

Avoiding the echo chamber – It’s all too common for people to defer to authority, leaving them reluctant to share their thoughts if they feel it contradicts their CEO’s opinion. This means the CEO is often surrounded by yes men who don’t challenge their ideas. A leader doesn’t need to hear what they want, but what they need. When a team feels comfortable and confident enough to share their opinions, they’re more likely to challenge their leader’s ideas. Constructive disagreement promotes more open conversation and collaboration. If your whole team shows up to share their best ideas, you can build a positive relationship and a dependable support system among your team.  

Self care – With so much responsibility on a CEO’s plate, it’s difficult to switch off. In fact, it’s common for leaders to suffer from tired-wired syndrome, experiencing low energy throughout the day, then being unable to turn off at night.

Their sleep schedule often takes the biggest hit to their mental health routine.

Yet regular sleep is key to maintaining self care. Take care of you before you can take care of everyone else. Put time aside for your hobbies, friends, family, and most importantly, yourself.  

The pandemic has been a demoralizing time for us all, especially when it constantly feels like little progress is being made.

Allow yourself as a leader to admit when you need help. Accepting that you can’t take on certain responsibilities on your own is the first step to identifying what you need to do to overcome an obstacle.

The more open you are with your team, the more they will trust, respect, and understand where you’re coming from, and will be more willing to reciprocate that communication. Activating that support network around you helps everyone and makes your work that much less lonely. 


Further Reading: 

Leadership Burnout- What CEOs Need to Do to Avoid Burnout, CEO Today Magazine 

How to Overcome Executive Isolation, Harvard Business Review 

Loneliness: The Executive Challenge No One Talks About, Forbes 

It’s Time to Acknowledge CEO Loneliness, Harvard Business Review 

How to Prevent Executive Burnout and Keep Your Leader from Unraveling, SHRM 

3 Simple Strategies to Combat Executive Isolation, Forbes 

How to Overcome the Loneliness of Leadership During the Coronavirus Crisis, Forbes 

Who’s Best-Placed to Support Your CEO as They Face the Pressures of Covid-19?“Less Lonely at the Top: Supporting the CEO”, Odgers Berndtson 

The Cure for the Loneliness of Command, INSEAD 

Your boss secretly wants to quit. Business leaders can’t take COVID work life anymore. The Globe & Mail 


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