We are experiencing a CEO leadership crisis—with limited information as to why. US CEO exits were at historic rates in 2023. 1914 CEOs departed, a 55% increase compared to 2022. “No reason given” was the top reason provided for 33% of exits in the Challenger, Gray and Christmas CEO turnover report, more than quadruple the 155 in 2021. The second was “Retirement,” the third “Stepped Down”.
Yet, as a public company CEO Coach and organizational psychologist, I see significant contributing factors that aren’t listed at all. That’s concerning.
Two hidden reasons that deserve attention are:
1) The demands on CEOs are exponentially increasing given the current economic, social and political climate;
2) as a result, CEOs are struggling with higher levels of burnout.
From my experience, when CEOs prioritize their wellbeing, it not only substantially reduces the risk for turnover, they have the stamina to meet the intensified demands. To reverse this trend, we must support CEOs differently by asserting wellbeing is foundational to leading at your highest capacity.
Amid balancing increased priorities, dealing with nonstop crises and economic uncertainty, and being expected to weigh in on charged external topics, current CEOs are navigating an unbelievable amount of pressure. Simultaneously, about 50% of executives are detrimentally impacted by workplace burnout at similar rates to employees. Symptoms include: poor mental health, exhaustion, stress and overwhelm.
Since the pandemic, there has been increased attention to supporting employee burnout. What about CEOs? Unfortunately, a Deloitte study revealed there is far less focus on executive burnout. I too see such little emphasis given. CEO wellbeing and is not considered a priority for the organization, board, or investors.
Burnout has become an expectation of the job. Executives constantly share they only feel like their output, not their wellbeing, matters. However, CEOs are not super-heroes; they are human beings. They are impacted by burnout too and deserve support to overcome it. The problem is wellbeing is considered completely separate from leadership.
When CEOs don’t care for themselves and aren’t connected to their why—their purpose for being in the position—they easily become disconnected from themselves and everything that matters to them. The pressure can be crushing. This results in CEOs being more likely to burnout and leave.
Alternatively, by integrating leadership with caring for your whole self—physical, mental and emotional—CEOs thrive. They operate at their highest leadership capacity, positively impact their organization and create extraordinary results.
In a recent study, I interviewed 20 Fortune 1000 CEOs to understand what leadership performance looks like when thriving versus burned out. I discovered a striking disparity.
I uncovered CEO burnout is not only harmful to the individual, it is destructive to their teams and organizations. Burned out CEOs: operate with reduced productivity, become closed off, create a negative environment, lack focus for decision-making, and act narrow-mindedly.
On the other end of the spectrum, thriving CEOs: operate at their peak leadership performance, create positive and inclusive environments, energize and encourage others, make clear decisions, are visionary leaders, and retain the enthusiasm and mental agility to excel in their roles.
CEOs leading at their best have a positive ripple effect. They are the leaders we most need at the top of our organizations.
How can CEOs promote their wellbeing?
- Change your mindset
First, shift your awareness to reprioritize yourself and your wellbeing. Acknowledge you won’t operate at your highest capacity without first focusing on your wellbeing. Embrace this mindset: wellbeing is foundational to peak leadership performance.
- Connect to your purpose
Envision what’s possible if you reach your full leadership potential. Check-in with your best-self, focusing on the long-term big picture. Consider how to cultivate your wellbeing to lead at your best.
Reflection: what’s important about taking care of my whole self?
- Create space in your day
According to my research, one of the biggest issues CEOs face is feeling a lack of control due to out-of-control calendars. This lack of space reduces effectiveness. Intentionally block your calendar to create space in your day to plan, think and accomplish work.
Shorten meeting lengths—to 45 minutes instead of 60 minutes and to 20 minutes instead of 30 minutes—to give transition time in between meetings. Model creating space for your team and encourage them to do so as well. Make a commitment to yourself, your team and your family: creating space is essential and may not be infringed upon.
- Eat real food and drink water
Unfortunately, in my experience, nutrition is one of the first things we compromise in leadership. However, as a nutritionist, I can attest that a key piece of being healthy and well is based on what we eat every day. The food we choose to put in our bodies impacts how we feel and how much energy we have to give as leaders.
Drinking more water is one of the easiest and highest impact steps in the right direction. Make small changes to slowly cut down on processed foods and include more whole food in your diet. Use the 80/20 rule where 80% of the time, you eat healthy, nutrient dense foods good for your body and 20% of the time, you eat foods that feed your soul.
What’s possible when the organization, board and investors consider wellbeing essential to peak CEO performance? CEOs give their best, replenish by fostering their wellbeing, and grow in an upward spiral. There is greater emphasis on how CEOs could serve at their full potential long term. CEO longevity, which is incredibly valuable for the stability of the organization, increases. Ultimately, with more CEOs connected to themselves, their purpose, and what matters most, our leaders, organizations and communities’ flourish.
Written by Dr. Jamie Shapiro.
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