Fear of death: The curse of the executive in their twilight years

“Have I got the energy to do it again?”
“You’ve got to look virile”    “I only fear death”
“Keeping my reputation is important for me”
“I wonder what the meaning is to my life”
“I make a point of telling investors my daughter is only 14 as most of their kids are in their late 20s”

Comments made by five executives in their mid to late 50s.  Each of them has what could be regarded as successful careers.  Four of them have become millionaires as a result of their corporate jobs.  Each apparently has a stable family life.  

But my sense is that they fear death.

I believe, on a subconscious level, they fear two types of death; what I term:

I.    Their inevitable corporate death; their retirement.  Represented by comments
like: “I try to give the image of youth.”

II.    Their inevitable mortal death.  Reflected in comments such as:  “What’s it
going to be like when friends die?”

If these are commonsubconscious fears of executives, in what one termed “the twilight of my career”, could they potentially lead to dysfunctional behaviour and disrupt the healthy functioning of their executive team and organisation?  

The answer I believe is yes.

For example:

The risk spectrum:  Their fear of their corporate death could lead, on one end of the spectrum, to them being more cautionsespecially if they fear the loss of their reputation, or on the other end of the spectrum it might lead to the possibility of them taking bigger, riskier decisions in their desire for one last corporate success, as they try to relive their career heydays.  

An executive at either end of this spectrum is unlikely to be thinking and acting in the organisations best interests.

Poor role model:  If younger employees perceive their company leader is attempting to project an image of youth then the leader might not be the role model they want, especially if from the point of view of transference the company leader is perceived as their grandparent.

Rudderless or workaholic?  At some future date their corporate death will be unavoidable, and long before their official retirement is announced they will likely be telling friends what they have heard future retirees say in the past, such as how they plan to “become an angel investor” or “refine their golf” or “spend time traveling and more time with their grandchildren”, but if these are just words with no strong desire behind them, then a feeling of being internally ‘rudderless’ might ensue, which might also play out with them mirroring this sense of being directionless with their executive team - or the opposite, ignoring it and then working with great gusto to their very last corporate minute, as Kets de Vries (2014) comments “being a ‘workaholic’ is transferring a death anxiety to work”.

One interviewee commented that he was driven because he had “unfinished business” but my sense was that he may never know when his unfinished business is finished, in his quest to avoid corporate death.

Greed:  Three interviewees (each already a millionaire) enthusiastically told me that if certain corporate deals were secured they would personally make millions of Euros more in the coming five years.  Zaleskiewicz, Gasiorowska, Kesebir, Luszczynska and Pyszczynski (2013) note that “people deal with the potential for anxiety that results from their knowledge of the inevitability of death by holding on to sources of value that exists within their cultural worldview.”  They propose that money is a source of soothing existential anxiety and go on to posit that death anxiety amplifies the value attributed to money, and the presence of money alleviates death anxiety.

So if we have an executive who’s consumed by making more money for themselves, how good a company leader are they going to be?

Concluding thoughts:  


  • What might the Chairperson of the company do to help chief executives with these fears?  (But then again the Chairperson may also be experiencing the very same fears!)


  • What might the company do to alleviate the fear of their corporate death, and hence minimise the dysfunctions associated with it?  (I’m only aware of one organisation, a US financial services firm, that has a programme to gently ease experienced executives into retirement.  Rather than letting them go ‘cold turkey’ into retirement, in their early 60s they become mentors to less experienced leaders.  The role is highly regarded and the company retains and transfers the knowledge of the mentor to their mentees.)


  • If executives in the twilight years of their career suffer (consciously or subconsciously) this fear of death, might this be an area for an experienced C-level executive coach (with psychological knowledge) to explore with their client to help them come to terms with it?


  • If you are one of these executives in the twilight of your career, then perhaps now is a good time to reflect about what you really want to do in the coming 20/30/40 or so years.  Perhaps write a letter to yourself, date it 20 years from today’s date and describe all those things you will have done in the intervening period, the experiences, times with your family, new interests and old interests you might have rediscovered.  You could then use this letter as a potential plan for your coming years.



Kets de Vries, M. R. (2014). Death and the Executive: Encounters with the "Stealth" Motivator (Working Paper No. 11). Retrieved from INSEAD Working Papers Collection.

Zaleskiewicz, T., Gasiorowska, A., Kesebir, P., Luszczynska, A., & Pyszczynski, T. (2013). Money and the fear of death: The symbolic power of money as an existential anxiety buffer. Journal of Economic Psychology, 36, 55-67  

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