CEOitis and Loneliness at the Top
The other night I was in Chicago with my colleagues talking to several chief communications officers about CEO reputation-building. Interestingly, we got on the topic of how lonely the job of the CEO is. One of our dinner guests talked about a moment when she saw a CEO walking off after a big event all by himself while everyone else was milling about chatting and bantering. It was emblematic of how isolating the job can be and how awkward as well. I saw this quote this morning from Mark Leslie, a high-tech entrepreneur and lecturer in management at Stanford Graduate School of Business and former chairman and CEO of Veritas.
When Leslie was stepping down as CEO of his first computer company, he expected a least some of the senior executives below him to show an interest in the top job. To his surprise, nobody did; they all felt comfortable where they were. “I always thought that everybody in business wants to be the CEO,” he says, “but people, when they get close to it, actually don’t want to do it. It’s a very lonely job. You really are not part of any socially cohesive group. You’re the leader, but you’re always kind of different.”
We also talked at dinner about how communications officers need to speak truth to power. Everyone had a story about having to tell their CEO when some story or remark would be perceived inappropriately or misinterpreted. Speaking up seems to be an important part of the communications job because CEOs often get infected with what I call “CEOitis” and forget that there is a world of income inequality and anti-business sentiment out there. It might not make sense for a CEO to drive his or her super charged BMW to work when layoffs are happening. Speaking up definitely comes with the job these days when missteps are as common as the sun rising and setting. One communications officer explained how he told the CEO he would disagree with him when he felt the CEO was making a mistake but if the CEO decided to move ahead, he would support the decision to the end. It is the right thing to do.