How CEOs Become Isolated

Paul Lewis
Feb 21, 2017

Asked what ‘keeps them up at night’, few senior executives would answer honestly: ‘how I can get my boss’s job’ or, more likely, ‘how I can stop rivals stealing my job’. But if this sounds familiar, Margaret Heffernan’s FT article Fear of losing top spot at work will hinder you holds valuable insights for HR and L&D professionals as well as top executives. She speaks to social psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, about how ‘people with a fixed mindset who find themselves at the top of an organisation prize their elite status so much they are consumed by the fear of losing it.’

‘Their immense achievements created celebrity and wealth but instilled fear and isolation,’ Heffernan writes. ‘These leaders knew that they were surrounded by others who were very capable. They acknowledged privately that their gifts were not unique. And so they withdrew, becoming isolated, unable to connect with clever people all around them who now appeared as threats.’

Nor is this a problem for just CEOs. The article refers to GE’s infamous, now abandoned, annual ranking of executives and its firing of the bottom tenth. But milder versions of this practice persist in many organisations. Professor Dweck notes that it ‘stops colleagues from sharing insights or contacts and helpful information. Instead of becoming more dynamic, companies can become sclerotic and defensive.’ For HR readers, the solution may well depend on far-reaching cultural change within the organisation. But by just recognising the existence of such a trait is an important step.

Paul Lewis

Editorial Director at Headspring