Many CEOs Underestimate Just How Closely They Are Watched and the Magnitude of Influence They Wield

All CEOs confront a complex reality: They must navigate a delicate balance between narcissism and their inner demons. This hidden struggle subtly erodes their potential and impedes their path toward self-discovery, healing, and effective leadership. Their true calling transcends facing vulnerabilities; it’s about achieving “entelechy” — a Greek word that means fulfilling one’s utmost potential. However, this path to realization is frequently hindered by the leaders themselves, as they unwittingly obstruct their progress.

In a recent TEDx talk, Brian Murray, CEO of the Ryan Companies, shed light on one common CEO demon. He emphasized the need to destigmatize depression and argued that doing so is essential for freeing CEOs from shame, isolation, and imposter syndrome, enabling them to inspire their teams with a compelling vision. Asking for help from a trusted source is critical. Echoing Murray’s message, the legendary musician Prince once advised against having only employees as friends, cautioning that such friends might withhold hard truths to remain in favor. Therefore, CEOs need supportive friends and family outside of work.

The magnetic pull of a narcissistic CEO can swiftly become a double-edged sword, transforming admirable leadership qualities into pitfalls of arrogance and isolation. Traits like self-confidence and charm, crucial for articulating a compelling company vision, can escalate into overbearing pride, detaching leaders from their teams and the reality of diverse perspectives. Bold risk-taking, once a beacon of innovation, may veer into reckless decision-making, jeopardizing the collective well-being for personal acclaim. As these leaders bask in the adulation of their role, the thin line between inspiration and narcissism blurs, challenging the very foundation of effective leadership. Authentic connections can mellow the narcissistic behaviors that often mask doubt and fear.

In his provocative book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Vivek Murthy, our current U.S. Surgeon General, illuminates the critical need for genuine human connections. Murthy presents a startling analogy, equating the health impact of chronic loneliness and isolation, common with senior leaders, to the risks of smoking 16 cigarettes a day or consuming six strong alcoholic beverages. This stark comparison sheds light on the often-overlooked physical toll of leadership isolation. CEOs frequently prioritize their employees’ needs for meaningful, authentic connections while neglecting their own.

In the demanding life of a CEO, where overwork and lack of rest are common, the neglect of self-reflection and personal growth can alienate leaders from their teams by not walking the talk of the company values (“Do as I say, not as I do”). Embracing humility is not just crucial — it’s transformative, creating a culture of openness, continuous learning, and mutual respect. Someone once told me, “Every CEO should have a therapist.”

CEOs must commit to an ongoing journey of self-enhancement, introspection, and receptive feedback. Setting aside time for deep reflection can align daily efforts with the company’s vision and values. As highlighted in the book Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise by Justin Zorn and Leigh Marz, the busier the CEO, the more critical the need for quiet time becomes. This solitude is not about inactivity but about creating a space for deep thought, introspection and rejuvenation, allowing leaders to cut through the noise and focus on what truly matters. Just as regular meetings are essential for a company to reflect and strategize, a CEO also needs dedicated time for similar contemplation and planning. The path to effective leadership at the highest levels is fundamentally linked to personal growth and emotional well-being.

After 31 years of coaching, many of whom have been CEOs, I’ve noticed that many CEOs underestimate just how closely they are watched and the magnitude of influence they wield. This lack of awareness can be a pivotal blind spot, as the company’s culture reflects its leader more than any other factor. Healthy, vibrant cultures stem from healthy, vibrant CEOs, while dysfunctional and unhealthy cultures mirror the state of their leaders. Therefore, CEOs must recognize that their actions, behaviors and well-being set the tone for the entire organization, shaping its values, resilience, and culture. Embracing this responsibility can transform their journey toward entelechy and guide their companies toward greater success and fulfillment.