The Lonely CEO
Can a president who is never wanting in eager company feel lonely? Surrounded by bright minds offering sensible advice and favor-seekers endlessly flattering him, there is hardly any occasion for the president to be alone. Everywhere he goes, a crowd gathers around him. People will always listen to him, whether he speaks of affairs of the state or affairs of his heart. Physically, he will never be lonely. But his job inflicts a kind of loneliness unique to powerful people who need to make sense of the chaos that only they can see. He knows that as the chaos seeks final resolution, he alone will deal with the buck that stops on his desk.
Very little is understood of this chaos that occupies the mind of the president every minute of his day.
The president is never short of inputs. Some are the product of assiduous homework and incisive analysis. Some are downright knee-jerk and thrown from the hip. It is not uncommon for a half-baked recommendation delivered in vociferous fashion to sound as compelling as a well-researched view presented in the softest of tones. This makes the job of the president even more difficult. It does not help that he has friends and family to consult. Among his friends and family, the voices can be just as disparate.
As he listens to everyone who has something to say, the president detects the limited perspective from where the opinions come. The perspectives are framed by interests narrower than the commonweal for which the leader is ultimately responsible. Each opinion-giver argues only for his piece of the puzzle without seeing the beauty in the rest of the pieces. No one can claim the privilege of seeing the entire picture the way the leader does. This is why the leader sees chaos where others don’t. This is where the loneliness of an intelligent leader starts.
When the contentious debate ends, the leader needs to reshape each piece of the puzzle to form a coherent whole. Some leaders get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the conflict that they choose not to resolve the chaos. Cowardice is not uncommon among leaders, especially those who came to office for the wrong reasons and with the wrong qualifications. There are familiar tools for dodging a conflict. A task force that will look into an issue and submit its recommendations is a typical refuge of indecisive leaders.
But there are leaders who are courageous enough to bring an end to chaos. As a brave leader faces his people to explain how he reshaped the pieces to complete the puzzle, he knows that he will make some people unhappy, especially those whose pieces were mangled beyond recognition. He knows that he may end up standing alone to defend his decision and take full responsibility for its consequences. His subalterns may rally around his decision but they will think better of their own skin before preventing a searing backlash from escalating all the way up to their boss. Such is the loneliness of the courageous leader.
Inside Malacañang’s war room, President Noynoy Aquino must have cut a forlorn figure listening to opposing views about the government’s response to the massacre of nineteen soldiers in Mindanao. On one side of the fence were angry voices calling for an immediate assault on the perpetrators of the dastardly crime. On the other side were equally forceful voices calling for moderation and warning against abandoning the peace process. At that precise moment, the President was between a rock and a hard place. As the country’s CEO, he alone had the final say. Amid the din of discordant voices in a room full of zealous advisers, the president must have wrestled with a strange mix of feelings: oversupplied with inputs, choked by the attention of people but weighed down by extreme loneliness.
One realization that hits any president is that he is the leader of everyone. He is the president of both the poor and the wealthy. He is the president of both his supporters and those who dislike him. Wholeheartedly or grudgingly, the best and the worst citizens of his country have equal right to call him their president. This realization notwithstanding, the temptation is strong for a leader to find comfort in the company of his admirers and to totally ignore his detractors.
Unfortunately, those who are denied the ears of the president become the disaffected multitude, resigned to waiting until “their time” comes. Aptly captured in the now popular phrase “weather weather lang” (to each his time), this attitude drives the disaffected multitude to the bleachers where they can practice their heckling skills. They will not heed any call by the president for sacrifice. They will pounce on every mistake he makes. Since the president is bound to make many missteps during his term, there will be many opportunities for the ranks of the disaffected multitude to grow, including uneasy alliances with the president’s erstwhile friends who abandon their hero after a principled disagreement on a crucial issue. Principled disagreements aside, friends are also known to forsake their president if they don’t win special favors. As the disaffected multitude gains strength, the president loses political capital. The political honeymoon gives way to political indifference, which can be stoked into political dissatisfaction. This isolates the president and makes him even lonelier.
There are those who say that the guys on the other side of the fence should not be trusted if they are intractable and bigoted. Whether they admit it or not, Barack Obama’s closest aides are likely saying this about the Republicans. Should the president then use all the might of his office to maim his detractors beyond repair? There are ways, fair or foul, to do this. Tactically, this sounds politically shrewd and expedient. But from a broader perspective, this search-and-destroy approach makes the president morally unfit for the country’s highest office whose occupant is sworn to protect the rights of every citizen, including his pet peeves. While the president is employing maximum weaponry to disembowel those whose faces and voices he abhors, who will protect their rights?
Many presidential aspirants are seduced by the power attached to the job but are hardly prepared for the loneliness that it brings. Once made to sit in the lonely chair, they find it difficult to stay the course. That is why many leaders fail to transit from slogan to action, from broad-strokes strategy to execution, and from dissonance to consensus.
Corporate CEOs know what loneliness is all about. Without exception, every CEO admits that it is lonely at the top. A corporate CEO needs to make sense of the disagreements in the boardroom and bring all conflicting opinions to a difficult convergence. Like the president of a country, a corporate CEO must accept that he is everyone’s leader and he must take responsibility for everyone’s career in the organization. Discovering the strengths of each person in his team and putting these strengths to best use is his biggest calling. His leadership must be inclusive and he must avoid the temptation to drive dissenters to the periphery. While setting his detractors aright, he must resist the human tendency to destroy them. Finally, he must be prepared to stand alone every time he makes decisions that can potentially whip up a storm.
The pragmatists see this loneliness as part of the CEO’s territory. In any company, the CEO gets paid the most because he carries the heaviest emotional and intellectual burden. Is the CEO fairly compensated for this loneliness? The math can be quite tricky.
Sadly, the loneliness that gets bottled up in the CEO through the years eventually takes its toll on his mortal physique. The CEO is human and his ability to process loneliness diminishes as he gets older. “Manage the loneliness,” many books have said time and again, but empirical evidence hardly shows CEOs winning the battle against this debilitating state of mind.
What the math does not take into account is the damage on the CEO’s family. What price is paid by the wife who has to hold the family together while the CEO pursues his corporate conquests? While she occasionally basks in her husband’s successes, she must bear the extraordinary pain of seeing her husband come home from a devastating setback. Yet the social circles that make up her support system are a lot smaller than her husband’s well-developed network of friends and allies. What price is paid by the CEO’s children who long for their father’s attention? When family vacations are cancelled because the CEO has to attend an important conference, might the children be questioning their relevance to their father’s life? When the CEO does not make it to a scheduled parent-teacher conference, might his son be asking whether his education is important to his father?
Before the rude awakening which inevitably happens, the typical CEO will ignore the math and assuage his conscience by saying that the damage inflicted by loneliness is temporary. To him, loneliness is a necessary evil, one of the thorns along the road less travelled, which leads to the proverbial “happy ever after” ending. Besides, as his logic goes, isn’t he taking all this pain so that his family will have a better future?
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is chairman of Maybridge (Asia) Inc. and past president of MAP. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. For previous articles, visit www.map.org.ph.)