Who Wants To Be A CEO In The Pandemic-Shifted World?

John Blakey
John Blakey
24 May, 2024
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It was January 2020. I gathered together a group of CEOs in London and asked them to imagine what they would be proud to have achieved by December 31, 2029. What were their goals for the new decade? In hindsight, I realize it was a shockingly naive question. At the time, we were still clinging to the illusion that we were masters of our own destinies. We still believed that if we were focused, resourceful and read enough of the latest management books, we could make anything happen. Absolutely anything.

About a month later, our world had been turned upside down. We were locked down. We were furloughed. We were on Zoom and Teams. We were witnessing suffering on a scale unimaginable for our generation. For the first time in our lives, the circumstances of leadership had trumped our own individual agency. We were no longer the masters of the universe we'd thought we were. And what a strange feeling that was: wandering around your garden in your tracksuit bottoms, bereft of all the trappings of leadership status. Not even a key worker. Just a CEO.

Of course, we now realize that this perfect storm had been brewing for quite a while. The stripping back and humbling of CEO life had started many years earlier when the reserved car parking space disappeared and the palatial corner office was sacrificed in the interest of hot desking and "dress-down Friday." Yet somehow the pandemic took all progressive trends, bound them together and accelerated them at warp factor two. As neglected children and cute pets walked across our tiny Zoom windows, lines were crossed that we may only now fully appreciate. As we emerge blinking from the cave of repeated lockdowns, we are piecing together the fragments of a shattered leadership landscape. Slowly, we realize that in this disruptive and disrupted decade, even the CEO is at the whim of circumstances they cannot control. Even the CEO has feelings, self-doubt and questions. For the first time in twenty years as an executive coach to board leaders, I hear my clients ask themselves the unspoken question: "Who wants to be a CEO?" 

The statistics support my anecdotal experience as seen in a recent survey that concludes that burnout is at an all-time high among leaders, with more than six in ten managers experiencing burnout and a fifth considering quitting their jobs. A recent conversation with a CEO in the U.K. education sector sums up the conundrum. "John," he said, "I'm surrounded by circumstances I can't control and stakeholders who vilify my position. Yet I am still held accountable for delivering a three-year plan that nobody believes in." Then he delivered the punchline. "And what's more, my daily expenses are subject to a 'Freedom of Information' request, and my children hold me personally culpable for global challenges ranging from climate change to racial tensions and world hunger. Don't get me wrong, I don't need to be worshipped, but neither am I comfortable being cast out as a social pariah." Exactly. Who wants to be a CEO?

As everybody took a step back during the pandemic and reassessed their lives, so did CEOs. As everyone around them contemplated the Great Resignation, so did CEOs. As their followers struggled with resilience and mental health problems, so did CEOs. I know this because CEOs share their true feelings with me in confidential coaching conversations. I'm not suggesting we should feel sorry for CEOs any more than we should feel sorry for anyone else in the Covid-transformed workplace, but I do want to pose a few questions: What happens when leaders lose their appetite to lead? What happens when your top talent reassesses the psychological contract of board-level leadership and concludes, "I'm not sure that's for me anymore"?


There's a popular line that says, "If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute solving it." Similarly, in this article, I don't want to rush to offer glib solutions to this talent management challenge; I would instead encourage a debate as to the exact nature of the problem. Do you think the hypothesis is correct? Do we have a looming crisis in the retention, motivation and future sourcing of our CEO and board-level talent pool? What are the factors that are contributing to this challenge in today's workplace? How do we ensure the needs of this critical stakeholder group are not dismissed simply because, historically, they have been stereotyped as the "fat cats" of organizational life? In my experience, and despite the media caricatures, most CEOs are decent human beings shouldering significant leadership responsibility and grappling with ever-more-wicked problems and spiraling external circumstances. Am I alone when I quietly suggest it is time to thank them for their dedicated leadership, cut them some psychological slack and enquire about their future needs?

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