Why it doesn’t have to be lonely at the top for CEOs

By John Karagounis >>

LONELINESS was one of the first things I noticed when I started working closely with CEOs a decade ago, right at the height of the global financial crisis (GFC). Not my loneliness, but theirs.

Many were feeling the intense pressure that was coming to bear on the corporate world at that time. These highly intelligent and competent people, who seemingly had it all, were feeling emotionally isolated. 

Many confided in me that they felt they had no one to talk to, no one who could relate to them. 

It was an exceptional time because the GFC put an incredible amount of pressure on everyone in corporate management, especially chief executives.

However, this feeling of loneliness is about more than dealing with the external pressures of an event like the GFC. It’s something many CEOs feel at an existential level.

Over the past decade as the CEO and managing director of The CEO Circle, I have interacted with more than 500 CEOs around the country. At The CEO Circle, we bring them together in confidential surrounds to connect, share, learn, develop and grow for their greater personal, professional and organisational success. 

John Karagounis.

They tell me nothing prepares them for their role. There is no manual, no handbook, no preparation whatsoever.

When they start in the role, they soon realise it’s the loneliest job in the world. They have a yearning to connect and engage with like-minded CEOs because they understand that the best advice they could possibly receive is from their peers, who have been where they are and empathise with what they are going through.

This sense of loneliness and the need for connection is something I have explored in my new book Why I Wrote This Book: For Greater Success.

These captains of industry possess incredible skills and capabilities, have deep insights and are fully equipped to run billion-dollar companies. But do they understand the essence of connecting?

The short answer is generally no. They’re usually not good networkers. There are exceptions; those few with gregarious, extrovert personalities or those who really commit to the task.

However, the reality is most do not invest time in connecting and engaging with people on a proactive basis. They do it when a need arises, like when they lose their job.

It’s at this stage of their journey where reality hits hard. Suddenly they feel isolated and alone.

But there are three key things CEOs can do to mitigate this loneliness: learn to network properly; stay involved and active in the outside world; and genuinely appreciate people.

What does it mean to network properly? Networking has a bad name for some because social media platforms like LinkedIn have made it easy to just click ‘accept’ and believe that is the extent of it. This is networking at its most superficial.

Networking is about building meaningful and mutually beneficial professional relationships that will stand the test of time. It might start with clicking ‘accept’ or swapping cards but it has to go deeper. Think quality, not quantity.

Work on connections where you can bring real value to the table. Don’t think about networking as a means of profiting from a relationship; start thinking about it as a means of giving something to a relationship. Giving is the essence of connecting.

Why should you stay involved in the world beyond your workplace? Because this is your life support system. Your friends and your family provide the buffer between you and the often harsh realities of work. I’m not a believer in the concept of work/life balance as such; I believe it is more about integration and finding harmony. Part of this harmony is making sure you don’t shut out the people in your life who are special to you.

I would extend this to things like hobbies and community activities too. These things give you a chance to switch out of work mode and dive into another aspect of your life, connecting you to different people and having different relationships than those you would have at work.

Do you genuinely appreciate people? My wonderful friend Jon Burgess espouses this simple ideal: “Who matters? Everyone matters.” This is at the base of what it means to connect and engage, and to move beyond feelings of loneliness and isolation.

It is about genuinely appreciating not only the people in your immediate circle, but also the wider world. Chatting with a stranger in an airport lounge; making time to really hear what a client has to say; or talking to your kids and their friends to get a new perspective on the world. These interactions can bring colour to your world when it starts feeling grey.


Loneliness is a silent pain. By reaching out to give, share, and connect, you open the door to a community of people around you. Share yourself with these people and you will be richly rewarded in return.


* John Karagounis is the CEO and managing director of The CEO Circle, an exclusive peer group forum for business leaders. www.theceocircle.com



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