Monday, August 10, 2015

So, Is It Lonely at the Top or Not?

It isn’t often that a cliché becomes a trending topic on social media.  So, when the old saw “It’s Lonely at the Top” popped up at or near the top of the list, my curiosity was piqued. 

Among the articles I discovered was one on the Wall Street Journal blog titled “FiveReasons Why It’s Lonely at the Top”.  The article was based upon an academic paper written by the authors of the blog post.  One of the authors was Adam Galinsky, a professor the Kellogg School of Business at NorthwesternUniversity, a business school consistently placed in the top 10 in the U.S.

Another – this one in the New York Times -- was titled “Not Lonely at the Top”.  It’s not unusual that the Times and the Journal take a different view of the same issue.  However, in this case, what struck me is that among the authors was none other than – you guessed it – Adam Galinsky. 

What gives?

Well, the first article is based on one’s psychological responses to being in power.  The authors contend that “power perverts, contorts and undermines a number of psychological processes that normally nurture close connections and form the foundation of healthy relationships”.

Among the reasons are that power alters our perception of other people’s generosity (are they being generous or just currying favor?) and, therefore, reduces our ability to develop trusting relationships. 

The alternative view explores how those in power feel rather than their reality.

Being alone is not the same as feeling alone,” say Galinsky et al. “You can have thousands of friends and feel lonely, or have only a single friend and feel connected. The separation from others — in stature, rank or responsibility — that power confers does not translate into loneliness. In fact, power has the opposite effect on its possessors, alleviating the need to belong and making them feel less alone.”

My own view has been developed less scientifically.  It is experiential (I’ve been a CEO).  It is observational (I work with CEO’s). And, it’s unscientific (it’s just my opinion, after all).

At its core, loneliness at the top is a function of the singular responsibilities that can be performed only by a CEO.  In one of his final works before his death, management guru Peter Drucker outlines them.  Among them are to define the company’s focus on the “Outside”.  If you are running a bank, speculates Drucker, you can focus on many different ways to deploy and leverage your capital – consumer credit, commercial loans, investments, etc. 

Another is to allocate resources to the company’s strategic initiatives.  It does no good for the CEO of an auto manufacturer to conclude that the best differentiator is upgraded infotainment systems if the company’s expertise is building the most powerful engines.  The internal operations must be prepared to deliver on the marketing promise. 

Granted, a CEO can surround himself with professionals – his management team, outside advisors – who can help him make better decisions.  However, the sense of loneliness springs from the fact that there is only one decision maker.

The feeling becomes more acute if the business is small and the CEO is the owner.  Mistakes can be costly and a big mistake can affect your ability to make your mortgage payment or put your kids through college.  No one else in the business feels that kind of pressure.

A good solution for many CEO’s is a peer group.  In a dissertation covering the learning experiences of CEO’s in the healthcare industry, Thomas Chapman concluded “Findings show that CEOs perceive high value in being with other CEOs for one-on-one, informal group interaction, and for having access to a congregation of CEOs in a unique group setting.”

He goes on further to conclude, “elite occupational group members seek other elites for their occupational learning, and exclusive learning groups offer CEOs a safe, confidential set of circumstances and environment that facilitate their learning.”

My experience suggests that learning opportunities are only part of the equation.   The obstacles to moving forward on important initiatives are more often the blind spots that all people develop.  Typically, they center on the need for control or a bias against acceptance of certain critical information.  A peer group can often spot these human frailties quickly and gain commitment to move beyond one’s comfort zone.

Drucker’s commentary is a worthy read for anyone in the study or practice of management and leadership.  But, knowing what to do and doing it are two different things.



  1. Kind of similar to why D Wade, Lebron, Chris Paul & Carmelo were vacationing together. Mere mortals can’t know all they have to deal with. CEO’s have the same issues to a less inflated degree

  2. Your thoughts regarding small business CEO’s was interesting. I didn’t think that you had been an entrepreneur. My company employed from 26 to 36 people over the 25 years I was CEO and Founder. There were many sleepless nights over making sure that I not only took care of my family and our expenses and needs but also those of our employees. Of course, there were also many nights I was elated by the awards we won and the bottom line results our team had produced. A CEO of a larger corporation can sometimes miss the opportunity to immediately impact both positively and negatively those aspects of their company.