The Secret Phobia All Leaders Face

The Secret Phobia All Leaders Face

By Syd Finkelstein



Transitions at the top of companies are a lot like politics—at least in the way observers, advisors and pundits react.

There’s the nonstop banter on whether the right person won the job. And there’s the tendency to quickly criticize. If only so-and-so had won the post! Is Mary Barra really the right person to lead General Motors? Does the newly appointed Rajeev Suri have the CEO skill set needed to bring Nokia back to world-class standing?

But one thing few people question: whether or not the person at the top has the experience needed and is ready for the job. After all, this is what they have striven for, sometimes for decades. They exude confidence, and leave no doubt that they are up to the task—and then some.

Don’t believe it.

Taking on the top job at any organization makes you the steward for the enterprise. While you expect to move the company forward in a variety of ways, there is one thing that absolutely cannot happen on your watch: failure. The top gun is responsible for the very survival of the organization. In those few moments when leaders are truly honest with themselves, that thought can terrify them.

It’s very hard to acknowledge this fear, but it’s there nonetheless. As you move up in an organization, you are rewarded with more responsibility. Inevitably, your confidence grows as a direct outgrowth of your success. Despite the ratcheting up of responsibility, you know you’re still playing with a safety net—your colleagues, your bosses.

And then you get the top job. That old adage that it’s lonely at the top is exactly right.

To whom do you talk about your problems? Not your subordinates, who may well be positioning themselves to be your successor. Not your boss, because, well, you don’t have one. And to the extent that the board of directors or other oversight body is an active one, few people would see it advantageous to share their worries with the very group that can fire you as easily as they hired you.

Where does this fear come from? It’s one thing to announce “the buck stops here,” but the truth is, it really does. The decisions a CEO makes can destroy, as well as create, value. It’s true for mergers and acquisitions, often the hallmark of corporate CEO decision-making.

But it’s also true in the everyday actions CEOs take to deal with change. In an age of disruption, there are no guarantees than any organization will survive indefinitely. Imagine you are the one in the corner office when that happens.

You are the face of the organization to all external stakeholders. When you think of Apple today, you think of Tim Cook; when you think of Germany, you think of Angela Merkel. The company, or the country, is entrusted in these hands, and leaders have a personal responsibility to protect that legacy that is simply inviolate.

That’s a lot of pressure, on one person. And it is the existential fear of all leaders. For if they are deemed a failure here, they face being branded a failure forevermore.

But, how, exactly a leader deals with this existential fear might depend on gender.

Research has shown that one common difference between men and women is in how confident they are to take on new challenges. Men tend to say yes, without hesitation. Women will, on occasion, pay more heed to the pros and cons, thereby conveying less confidence. That’s one reason men are promoted more often than women, yet ironically, a careful assessment of a challenge is almost always a better approach than blindly saying yes.

For women who eventually make it to the pinnacle, their tendency to be more introspective can be helpful in dealing with fear at the top, too. Even if female CEOs don’t reach out to peers, trusted advisors or family members, the mere fact that they are more self-aware can help them compartmentalize fear rather than have it silently insinuate itself like a carbon monoxide, paralyzing them when they most need to act.

Men will be less likely to acknowledge, even to themselves, that their immense responsibility can be scary, and hence, will be less likely to do anything about it. As we know, however, just because you don’t acknowledge that something is true doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The more you deny it, the more real it is, always lurking in the back of your mind.

Just as fear at the top cannot be wished away, it needn’t incapacitate any leader, man or woman. It comes with the territory, and that’s just the way it is. As difficult as it might be, it’s much better to acknowledge that fear is part of the job description for CEOs so that it doesn’t rise up to hurt you when you most need to be thinking clearly.

And for the rest of us, it might also be good to remember that despite all appearances, the people at the top carry a very heavy burden. After all, they’re only human.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.