CEO Loneliness Is Real: Here’s How to Prevent It

When people think of a CEO, terms like successful, amiable, smart and a whole list of other positive adjectives often crop up. But lonely? That’s not generally the first word that comes to mind when you think of the head of a company. After all, aren’t CEOs some of the most sociable people around?

Let me phrase it another way: If I was aiming to be a successful CEO, networking and empathy with others would be at the top of my list. Can there be any doubt that CEOs will work with others? Of course not! If you’re a CEO, you are undeniably involved with other people.

But I think we’re looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. By that, I mean that I think loneliness and being socially connected are not mutually exclusive. Let’s check out the definition of loneliness for a start.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, lonely has two main meanings associated with it: being physically alone, and having no companionship. I think the confusion stems from these two different definitions.

It’s unlikely that CEOs are alone for extended periods of time, but it’s certainly possible that they don’t find meaningful companionships with their colleagues. That explains how a CEO can be socially involved but lonely at the same time.

If you’re spending time with people you hate, you may be lonely at some level. If no one else in a classroom or some other social context shares the same ideas as you, you may be lonely.

So what does loneliness mean for CEOs? And how can we better understand it and prevent it?

Being a Workaholic

While you’re working, you’re around a lot of people. You have to take leadership roles and make decisions as a CEO as well. But none of these professional interactions guarantees a companionship between a CEO and his or her employees. You can be a CEO who’s simply too caught up in the affairs of the company to be a personal figure.

In fact, in a recent study, work and sleep were the 2 things CEOs spent the majority of their time on. In a 24-hour day, 9.68 hours were dedicated to work-related matters and 6.78 hours to sleep. That kind of dedication to a career is pretty demanding. It doesn’t leave a lot behind for a social life.

The solution for this cause of loneliness is simple: Sacrifice some of the time you spend working. Most guiding philosophies around the CEO lifestyle suggest recruiting talented individuals. This can work in your favor.

There is a dilemma between spending less time on business and spending less time on social companionship. As a CEO, if you have the right eye for talent and personality it might be possible to kill two birds with one stone.

Recruit talented people you get along with. Then you’ll feel a sense of companionship during your long work hours, because you’ll have created a comfortable company culture for yourself.

Being a Leader

Surprisingly, leadership is another central reason behind CEO loneliness. The reason is that maintaining the composure and confidence of a leader can be draining. It’s the same issue of a lack of companionship. But this time, the lack of companionship comes out of disconnection with one’s community. This is similar to the first point that there is less room for CEOs to engage with others on a personal level.

It can be hard to share insecurities and fears with others as a leader. Even telling your friends about the challenges of running a company is shaky as common ground.

Ironically, the leadership role entraps CEOs. The bar for professionalism and the need to constantly wear a mask makes genuine companionship difficult. Furthermore, because others’ positions in the company may be tenuous, their relationship with you is not likely to be sincere.

The Solutions

A piece in the Harvard Business Review confirms the issue of CEOs lacking companionship.

It claims that 70 percent of first-time CEOs experiencing loneliness see a negative impact on their performance. That highlights the need for an actionable solution. Here are three simple steps you can take to start to pull yourself free of loneliness, with the acronym ASK:

  • Accept reality
  • Seek support
  • Keep moving

It’s a simple and honest approach to a difficult issue. But the simplest solutions are often the best.

David is a professionally accredited leadership and marketing coach who works with young founders and early stage.