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Time to Get Deep: Why CEOs Need to Embrace Mindfulness

Ray Williams
Ray Williams

Lonely CEOs may have a negative effect on their organizations' performance and success. Embracing mindful behavior can help.

“It's lonely at the top" appears to be more true than ever, and that has serious implications for the performance and well-being of CEOs.

Mindfulness practices can be a powerful strategy to address this growing problem.

The picture most people across the spectrum have of CEOs is fairly consistent: Their compensation and benefits are exorbitant; they wield absolute power; and they enjoy high and often celebrity-like status.

According to Dr. Thomas J. Saporito, chairman and chief executive officer of RHR International, a global firm committed to the development of top management leadership:

“From extravagant compensation packages to heated boardroom clashes to dramatic exits, misbehaving chief executive officers dominated management headlines."

Few people are feeling particularly sorry for CEOs right now, and that’s unlikely to change. CEOs have power, prestige, influence, and wealth. The general perception is that they have it made.

And there is some truth to those perceptions.

Why Feel Any Sympathy for Those CEOs Who May Feel Lonely?

One answer: because it may have a negative effect on their performance and their organizations.

Saporito says, “The notion that it’s lonely at the top is not just a trite phrase. I’ve been at this for over 30 years, and I’ve spoken with 200 plus CEOs, there are precious few that didn’t, in the privacy of our discussions, talk about loneliness.”

According to a study conducted by the Center for Leadership Development and Research (CLDR) at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Stanford University's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, (link is external) and The Miles Group, many CEOs feel alone and isolated and nearly two-thirds of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, and almost half of senior executives are not receiving any either.

M. Ena Inesi of London Business school and Adam D. Galinsky of Kellogg Graduate School of Business wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “However, the very nature of power and its psychological effects often leave the powerful feeling lonely at the top.”

According to a recent survey by consultancy RHR International, being the top dog at a company isn't all critical decisions and high-octane living.

The survey of 83 CEOs at public and private companies with annual revenues of $50 million to $2 billion found that fully half of the top executives reported feeling a sense of isolation that can potentially hinder their ability to do their jobs.

The survey goes on to conclude: "The intensity of the CEO's job, coupled with the scarcity of peers to confide in, creates potentially dangerous feelings of isolation among chief executives.

Fifty percent of all CEOs report experiencing loneliness in the role, and of this group, 61 percent believe that the isolation hinders their performance," says the study's release.

First-time CEOs are particularly affected, with nearly 70 percent of those who complained of feeling lonely in their post admitting their isolation negatively affects their ability to do their jobs.

Sixty-three percent of CEOs polled by the Harris Interactive Service Bureau in 2012 said that they experienced feelings of loneliness in their role.

CEO isolation and loneliness is a reflection of a trend in the general population. As Robert Putnam documented in his famous book "Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital", we’re spending less and less time with each other.

As technology connects us, it changes the types of relationships we have. We have more “friends” than ever, but we lack the deep bonding we yearn for.

The problem isn’t just anecdotal. In 2014, the National Science Foundation reported in its General Social Survey that an unprecedented number of Americans are lonely. Almost one fourth of respondents reported having “no one with whom they can talk about their personal troubles or triumphs.”

CEO failure is on the rise in recent times. The average longevity for CEOs in North America is less than three years. CEOs are beleaguered by constant pressure from shareholders, boards of directors, government regulators, the media and special interest groups.

And the list goes on.

The job of CEO is unique from several perspectives: no one else needs to hear the truth more, and gets it less from employees; no one else is the focus of criticism when things go wrong; no one else is the final decision maker on difficult and often lose-lose decisions.

This sense of isolation is one of the most obvious themes emerging from a study, Stepping Up To CEO, published by the School for CEOs.

Indeed, 93 percent of the business leaders questioned said that prospective CEOs required more specific preparation for the top role.

This is perhaps surprising given the amount of time and expense most organizations put into executive training.

As well as feeling under-prepared for the loneliness and being ultimately accountable, leaders cited the unique aspect of the role.

CEOs may be feeling lonelier and more isolated for a variety of reasons than in the past in part because the spotlight is much sharper.

For today’s leaders, “the biggest difference is that CEOs in this era are undergoing an incredible level of scrutiny,” Saporito says. “They’re under the gun from just about every which angle. Shareholders, regulators and analysts expect a much greater level of transparency.”

How Have CEOs Dealt With the Problem of Isolation and Loneliness?

Bill George, a professor of management at Harvard Business School has written books on his “True North” philosophy. George recommends meeting with peers who, over time, form a tight-knit emotional support group. Some CEOs belong to formal or informal groups that share experiences and perceptions, although the issue of confidentiality can become a problem.

Some, particularly new CEOs, have found experienced mentors who have had their experiences and advice to share.

And still others have hired executives coaches, who on a confidential basis have provided trusted, honest and direct conversations and advice not available in any other way.

One of the core issues of mitigating loneliness emphasizes what Saporito defines as managing one’s own vulnerability.

“That’s where the loneliness comes in,” he says. CEOs are trying to maneuver between stakeholders, employees, and regulators, “and while they’re trying to do all that, where can they say what’s on their mind or talk about their options? To precious few people,” he says.

How Can Mindfulness Help With Isolation and Loneliness?

The CEOs I have worked with have found coaching the most beneficial way of dealing with vulnerability.

If that's the case, then mindfulness is another approach to consider. In mindful awareness practices we emphasize paying attention to your moment-to-moment experience, including internal emotional and mental activity and, when in dialogue with other people, attuning to them and the shifting dynamics of your interaction as well.

These are comparable to the skills that the latest social cognition interventions strive to develop. Empathy has been shown to arise from mindfulness practices as well.

Mindfulness is also inherently, even when unintentionally, therapeutic in nature in that it helps to expand the space between what is happening and what might be an automatic reaction to it, whether it be a thought or behavior, that has become habitual over time, so that new, more helpful, healthier ones can emerge.

Within those spaces are more opportunities to break the loneliness cycle.

A new study led by Carnegie Mellon University's J. David Creswell found that mindfulness meditation reduced feelings of loneliness and lowered inflammation levels, which is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases.

There are other ways that mindfulness practices can mitigate the problem of isolation and loneliness for CEOs. Over nearly four decades, Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness has greatly influenced thinking across a range of fields, from behavioral economics to positive psychology.

It reveals that by paying attention to what’s going on around us, instead of operating on auto-pilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and boost performance.

She argues mindfulness practices:

  • Improves the capacity for paying attention, which improves performance
  • Improves memory
  • Decreases reactive behavior
  • Enhances creativity
  • Increase one's capacity to focus on the present
  • Improve relationships
  • Enhances positive charisma
  • Reduces the tendency for being judgmental of others and of oneself
  • Enables better stress management
  • Enhances open-mindedness
  • Decreases mindless,autopilot behavior

In my work with executives, I have observed that those who have embraced mindfulness practices have been better able to be good listeners and conversationalists; run better meetings; and perhaps most importantly, include scheduling down-time, do-nothing time, and reflective time in their daily lives.

As a result these executives have gained greater self-awareness and emotional regulation and controlling reactive behavior is often a product of mindfulness practices, all of which are powerful strategies to counteract the negative effects of isolation and loneliness.

Image Credit: golubovy / Getty Images
Ray Williams
Ray Williams Member
Ray Williams, Master Certified Coach, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s top executive coaches. He brings over 35 years experience to his clients as a CEO, and senior HR executive and professional speaker. Ray is the recipient of the Master Educator Award from the American Society of Education Executives, and is also past President of the International Coach Federation and Governor of the National Staff Development Council in the U.S. He has clients in Fortune 500 companies, Best Managed Companies in Canada and small to medium sized businesses and non-profit organizations throughout the world in the areas of leadership, workplace culture, team development and peak performance. He has been very active in such organizations as the Vancouver Board of Trade, having served as a Director and Vice-Chair. Ray has written for or been interviewed by The Washington Post, Forbes, USA Today, NBC News, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, MacLean’s, The Financial Post, Fast Company and Psychology Today, Salon, and dozens of other and other national and international publications having published more than 300 articles. He is author of a new best selling book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Navigate Chaotic Workplaces. He has also written a book on educational leadership, The Leadership Edge, a personal growth book, Breaking Bad Habits, and was contributing author to Systemic Change, and the Best Seller, Ready, Aim, Influence. He has also written a novel and screenplay entitled Dragon Tamer.