The chairman of the board of directors came to the CEO after a meeting and asked, “Are you ok? You are looking really stressed out.” The CEO’s response was to dismiss it with assurances that he’d been working hard to get ready for the meetings, that he had been traveling a lot to various company locations, but that he was fine.
The truth was he wasn’t OK. Things in his personal life were a mess and they were beginning to take a toll.
Like many chief executives, he wasn’t willing to admit to himself, let alone to others, that he was struggling to keep his personal life from affecting his professional life. He figured that he was able to handle the stress on his own. After all, it was his self-reliance, character and abilities that had helped to get him the job in the first place, right? Inside, however, he knew that he couldn’t continue under these circumstances forever.
Does this sound familiar? This hypothetical CEO, like many chief executive officers I have known, rose to the top spot through hard work and many God-given gifts and abilities. These CEOs are likely to be visionary and compassionate leaders. They may have had great executive teams to work with. They are likely to be involved in local, regional and national boards of directors and may have received a lot of positive affirmation for their work. In short, good CEOs are respected and trusted as being effective leaders, good citizens, and people to be admired and looked up to. They are expected to model the values of the organization – not to be weak human beings.
It is an unfortunate fact, however, that many CEOs are also lonely – both by choice and by circumstance. I have written previously about the perils of how lonely at the top it can be for CEOs of large organizations. With an absence of peers inside the organization combined with fears about disclosing personal challenges to the board, CEOs who don’t have support systems outside the organization are at significant risk. And when issues in one’s personal life add another level of conflict and stress, well, the feelings of isolation become multiplied.
Why do such leaders seem to be averse to seeking help to deal with the personal challenges they face? From my experience, I have come to believe there are several forces that work against such CEOs.
The first of these is their own ego. Many CEOs are convinced that reliance on friends or others in a support network is indicative of weakness. They delude themselves into thinking that they don’t need such support, that they don’t need close personal relationships, and that “a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.” Therefore, to disclose personal challenges is to show weakness, and to admit to themselves or anyone else that they were in need of help is not an option. The difficult lesson that has to be learned is that there is a significant difference between weakness (actually, a type of arrogance) and vulnerability (which shows humanness).
A second factor is denial. To admit to anyone else that they are anything less than the perfect CEO they were expected to portray is considered dangerous to one’s reputation, or at least to the image they felt they had to maintain in the organization and the community. To themselves and to others, many CEOs deny their personal problems, or if they do acknowledge to themselves that their lives are a mess, that they can manage the challenge on their own.
A third factor is not knowing where to turn for help. For many ego-driven leaders, circles of friends are relatively small and social, not personal. Perceived as aloof and self-assured, these self-sufficient CEOs are actually isolated and having conversations only with themselves. They are in desperate need of having a confidential and non-judgmental person they can trust who can listen objectively and help sort through the challenges they are facing.
It is critically important that CEOs experiencing personal challenges find just that kind of person – someone who can confidentially help them navigate critical personal areas. I would argue that most CEOs need to get over themselves and seek out that kind of help. Not only are such confidants a potential life saver, but there is the potential through counseling and support to improve leadership effectiveness, not to mention become better human beings.
I don’t want to see any competent executive leader go down the tubes because of issues in their personal life. Now, in my retirement, I am committed to providing a doorway through this consulting practice for CEOs to find the kind of confidential advice and support that can mitigate the possibility of personal and professional collapse. Anyone who has worked as a CEO knows the challenges. I have experienced them as well. Give me a call if you would like to have a confidential conversation about your particular circumstance. I’d love to offer an understanding ear.