The Psychological Impact Of Being A Chief Executive

Isn't it great!  You've made it!

I bet it feels good.

All these years you've waited for the top job and now at last you've got it.

I bet it looks good too.  At minimum you have a slightly bigger office and may be slightly better office furniture (do you have a corner office?).  And even if your company 'hot desks' you probably have a reserved conference room you can call your own.

And the pay.  That's good too.  Okay it could be a bit better, but it’s not bad.  It's liveable.

So you've made it.

Being the Chief Executive is a great place to be.  For many, it's a lifelong ambition...fulfilled.

But everything has a price attached.  

Over the years I've gained wide experience working with Chief Executives.  From my clinical observations it is clear that being a leader carries a psychological impact.

To be effective as a Chief Executive it's important to be aware of this psychological impact.

Being aware will help you judge and time when to seek help, rather than 'tough it out' and potentially experience a negative impact on your life and your career.  This negative impact often surfaces in the form of stress and lack of sleep, and for some, poor behaviours creeping in.

Let's look through how the downsides of being at the top can manifest themselves:

Take a mental note of any that might apply to you.  In no particular order:

No one to talk to:  The old adage that it is 'lonely at the top' is oh so true.  When you get the top job you typically move out and away from your former support structure of peers. Who can you turn to now to bounce around ideas and to give you honest & direct feedback?

So what!: After the euphoria of getting the top job wears off and the day-to-day routine creeps in, some leaders start to feel a bit deflated.  Thinking to themselves "So what! Is this it?" and this in turn can lead to frustration.

Doubt:  This comes when leaders ask themselves "Do I really want this job after all?" This can often happen when leaders seduce or persuade themselves into thinking they really wanted the job.  This doubt brings its own pressure.

Addiction: Others start to get addicted to having the top job.  For some it's the sense of power and for others a sense of meaning.  They love being the number 1 (and who wouldn't).  However with this addiction often comes a fear of losing their top role, a concern that their pedestal will some day crumble.

Fear of success:  Some leaders fear being successful for some pretty deep reasons that go back to their roots.  Perhaps they are now more successful than their parents ever expected them to be, more successful than their siblings.  As a result some self-sabotaging behaviours can creep into their repertoire. Almost as if they want to stop their forward momentum of success.

Balance:  It's not uncommon to hear a leader say they are putting their family first.  And, on the extreme, in the next sentence they say, how they are working all hours, including some weekends, traveling the world on business and missing their children's key school events.  But, they really are putting their family first!  Others just need to fine-tune their work/home balance.  But for all, having this balance out of sync can bring great pressure that reaches out into the family ecosystem.

"I'm not worthy!":  Some new Chief Executives don't internalise and accept their accomplishments and don't feel worthy of their new role.  This in turn can lead to them sabotaging themselves, perhaps by them lacking the executive impact they need, and once had.

Set-up-up-fail:  Some Chief Executives quite literally (and unwittingly) set up executive team members to fail.  For example, a Chief Executive begins to worry when they feel an executive team member's performance is not satisfactory. He/she then takes what seems like the obvious action by increasing the time and attention they focus on that executive. But rather than improve their performance, the increased supervision has the reverse effect. The executive, in perceiving their Chief Executive's lack of confidence in them, starts to withdraw. And this begins a downward spiral.

Envy:  It is not rare for a Chief Executive to be envied by former peers and those in their wider business network.  They are envious of the Chief Executives success when they compare their success to their own.  This envy when noticed can well up a whole cocktail of emotions within the Chief Executive.

Reputation:  You have toiled hard to get the role and establish a solid reputation in your industry.  But what if it became tarnished? This fear of loss of reputation could cause some Chief Executives to be extra cautious even when the business needs them to be bold.

Changing behaviours:  The behaviours and traits that made someone successful at say an executive team level may not serve them well when they become chief executive.  For example, a great fact focused Chief Financial Officer might get promoted to Chief Executive.  But to be a good Chief Executive they may need to exhibit greater emotional intelligence.  Learning and then embedding this key new set of behaviours can prove challenging without guidance.

Missing know-how:  Many Chief Executives lack the know-how to create a high performing executive team.  They’ve read the textbooks, but are missing the psychological understanding of how groups of highly successful executives operate together.  This can lead to frustration.

Corporate death:  There are some Chief Executives who fear what I term, their ‘corporate death’ (their retirement).  Their whole sense of being, their identity is wrapped up in their job title and all it brings.  They secretly fear the time it will all come to an end.

Personal fears:  There are other fears, some deepseated, that can lead to dysfunctional behaviours creeping-in that can become contagious within an executive team and organisation, and this in turn impacts organisational performance.  For more information read my Harvard Business Review, What CEOs Are Afraid Of - click to read.


So reflecting on this list, did any of these observations of the psychological impact of being a Chief Executive feel familiar to you? 

And if yes, how ...more? 

As I say, everything has a price attached. 

I work with Chief Executives to ensure they are successful in their role and maintain a healthy balance, removing or neutralising the downsides of being at the top.  For details click here.


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