It’s lonely at the top

Most CEOs will tell you it’s lonely at the top. I was one, and it was.

I recently read the book Managing Change by Jick and Peiperl. In it, they reproduced a speech by Bob Galvin, the recently deceased former chairman and CEO of Motorola, during what might be described as Motorola’s heyday. Here’s an excerpt:

“When one is vested with the role of the leader, he inherits more freedom. The power of leadership endows him with the rights to a greater range of self-determination of his own destiny. It is he who may determine the what or the how and the when or the where of important events. Yet, as with all rights, there is a commensurate, balancing group of responsibilities that impose upon his freedom. The leader cannot avoid the act of determining the what or the who and the where. He cannot avoid being prepared to make these determinations. He cannot avoid being prepared to make these terminations. He cannot avoid living with the consequences of his decision on others and the demands the consequences impose on him. Only time will prove the merit of his stewardship. Because he is driven to pass this test of time, he will be obliged often to serve others more than himself. This obligation will more and more circumscribe his destiny. So those who assume true leadership will wonder from time to time if the apparent freedom of the leader adds a greater measure of independence, or whether the dependence of others on him restricts his own freedom.”

Many look at CEOs and say, “You lucky bastard …” because they’re often very well- compensated and may appear to be “masters of the universe.” Many have a good deal of self-confidence, which is sometimes envied and sometimes despised. However, as Galvin eloquently describes, true leadership comes with many obligations and can be quite lonely.

At one point in my life, I was in charge of a 7,000-person organization with $500 million in revenue. It was lots of fun and extremely challenging. However, I wasn’t the CEO. My first stint as a CEO was in a 30-person, private-equity-backed turnaround situation. The CEO stint should’ve been less demanding and easier because it was a much smaller organization. It wasn’t. As CEO, you realize (to quote Harry Truman) that “the buck stops here.” A lonely spot.

What’s the antidote to this loneliness? Four steps.

1. Mentally create a successful leadership model to work toward. There are many leadership models, but one of the most simple and effective is from Warren Bennis’ article “The Four Competencies of Leadership.” I’ve used this model to successfully advise many senior leaders. The four competencies are attention, meaning, trust and self. To lead others to success, you must have their attention, have winning ideas, gain their trust and be emotionally intelligent.

2. Get help. To avoid breathing your own exhaust all day, you need a truth-talker. You won’t likely find this person on your staff. It could be a mentor, a group of advisers, a coach or a peer. You need someone who has your best interests at heart but who’s also kind enough to call baloney when he/she sees it, applaud your success and be honest at the risk of offending you.

3. Develop healthy self-esteem. Your successes will be due to your effort, many others’ effort and a bit of luck. Your failures, and you’ll have many, will be attributable to the same list. In other words, lots of things happen to cause failures, and you’re only one of them. It doesn’t mean you’re incompetent.

4. Lead collaboratively. You don’t have to be the smartest guy in the room; engage others in your quest for success. Led well, a team of people has a cumulative IQ that’s much higher than the sum of the individuals.

As Galvin points out, effective leaders cannot avoid determining the organization’s direction, making the tough decisions and living with the consequences. They can, however, avoid taking the lonely road.

Categories: Management & Leadership