A few weeks ago, the Harvard Business Review ran an article titled, “It’s Time to Acknowledge CEO Loneliness.”

It’s an interesting article that discusses extravagant compensation packages, fancy jets and hotels, mansions for homes, and car services. All while feeling very lonely because, as a leader of an organization, you seemingly have no one on your side.

I recommend you read it.

But the most interesting part of the article is in the comments.

You see, people don’t feel sorry for CEOs. The perception is they have all this money so why should it matter they’re lonely?

In fact, one commenter said, “My heart bleeds for the lonely, misunderstood CEO.  I’m sure someone making three hundred times my salary is in need of some tender loving care and understanding.  So let me tell these guys where to find sympathy:  In Webster’s, somewhere between s*** and syphilis.”

But I’m here to tell you, not all CEOs are wealthy, fly in private jets, sip champagne at 30,000 feet, stay in five star hotels, live in mansions, and only care about what’s in it for them.

There is a large group of CEOs who built companies from nothing. Who bootstrapped their business growth. Who didn’t get paid a dime (no stock options, no salaries, no draws, no bonuses, no retirement savings, nothing) in down years. Who have, more than once, laid in bed awake at night, wondering how they were going to make payroll. Who had to come to a decision that the time may very well be here to let everyone go and shutter the doors. Who also then picked up the pieces and put it all back together because quitting wasn’t an option.

Those people are lonely. I know because I am one.

They don’t say it’s lonely at the top for no reason. It is lonely at the top. Perhaps for the very reason the one commenter made – the perception is we’ve all made it.

There are plenty of things we can do to change that perception, at least internally with our own teams. Things such as rewarding equally, participating in meetings, showing our faces, and coaching and mentoring. But there isn’t anything we can do if someone thinks we make three hundred times their salary…even if we don’t.

There are four things we can do make it less lonely, provide some support, and hold us accountable, not just for business growth, but for taking care of our teams.

  1. Get a coach. Every professional athlete has a coach. Not all, but a good percentage of today’s CEOs are self-made. That means we didn’t “grow up” climbing the corporate ladder and gaining CEO skills along the way. There is no shame in having someone hold you accountable to the work you say you’re going to do.
  2. Join a peer advisory group. I belong to Vistage, but there are other organizations, such as Entrepreneurs’ Organization, Young Presidents’ Organization, and Women Business Owners. Peer advisory groups give you the opportunity to work through issues and challenges with people who have either done it or are doing it.
  3. Walk around. It’s simple and it doesn’t cost you anything, but many leaders never leave their offices. Walk the manufacturing floor. Talk to the interns in the cubicles. Hang out at the front desk. Run the cash register. Get out once a day and talk to your team. This will lessen the perception that it’s you against them. And, you never know, you may end up becoming less lonely as you share your days with your team.
  4. Form a board of advisors. While you may not be a public company that has to report to a board and shareholders, creating an advisory board of people whose expertise make up areas where you are weak helps you stave off the loneliness. Typically these people gain some sort of equity in your business and meet with you once a quarter. You treat them just as you would a corporate board and rely on their expertise to help you through issues and challenges.

There certainly isn’t much we can do for those who think we’ve made it, but we can help ourselves in battling that feeling we’re all alone.

What additional ideas do you have for tempering the loneliness?

Special thanks to Cartoon Stock for the very funny image. Also, a portion of this first appeared in my Friday column over at Crain’s Chicago Business.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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