‘In space, no one can hear you scream’

‘In space, no one can hear you scream’

A CEO tells her coach: at the top, loneliness is like living in a vacuum…

The Scream (detail), Edvard Munch, 1893

A CEO tells her coach: at the top, loneliness is like living in a vacuum…

Strongly wanting to lead the organisation to success, Penelope, a CEO of 5 years standing, says she feels the responsibilities of her role have changed her. Now she is surrounded by protocols and timetables, and gate-keepers who keep people out. The air has de-oxygenated the further she has moved from the ground. She feels people prefer her to keep away for fear that her changes will affect their work and maybe even their jobs. Penelope says she notices how people avoid her and tell her things they think she wants to hear, and how relationships with colleagues have changed from collegial to hierarchical. 

‘Authority’ changes in everything, she says, and she is acutely aware how anti-developmental all this is. She worries about this. The emotional pressures to know the answers to problems, and solver of none, make her feel very alone. She recognises she is at the epicentre of multiple and competing stakeholders — shareholders, the board, directors, managers, workers, suppliers, customers/users, communities, society and the environment.

In one session, Penelope says she worries about the subtle changes in her judgment of her direct reports — from an initial high level of trust to a gradual loss of confidence and an increasing sense of disappointment. ‘Is it my style of leadership? The role? Is it their behaviour and attitude? Or is it the system?’ she asks. Whatever the answer, she feels troubled, she cannot get comfortable; she feels more isolated and lonely. 

A lot of the time she feels she is floating in space with only the barest connection with the organisation.

Penelope’s coach listens and prods gently with questions, interpretations and summations and other helpful lines of inquiry, empathically commenting on Penelope’s feelings, even asking after her dreams. Conversations are sometimes focused; sometimes they follow unintended avenues, shedding light, opening challenges and inviting new perspectives. 

The conversations are geared to developing new thinking, not necessarily searching for solutions. They sometimes focus on organisational problems and theory, on interpersonal relations, role relationships and personal idiosyncrasies; at other times they focus on Penelope’s mood, why some behaviours get repeated, seemingly unconsciously, and others are avoided; feelings and emotions are discussed, helping to distinguish those that stem from the role and those that stem from her as a person. Frustration and anger are two emotions that interfere with achieving a clear head, common sense and maintaining her humanity and her values. 

At the end of each session, Penelope usually feels a sense of relief and clarity of thinking about the issues and the feelings they generate. The coach has no axe to grind; he is on Penelope’s side, working in her interest, allowing her to discover different leadership capabilities within herself and strengthening her sense of self by helping her to investigate unexpected sources of her feelings that perhaps had lain dormant for years.

Between coaching sessions Penelope tests her new discoveries and monitors responses and reactions to them. She discusses the changes with her coach and they move on to deeper layers of understanding and to ever-widening circles of dialogue and insight. Penelope discusses her frustration with the coaching itself – the slow pace, a new idea that she is not ready to assimilate; the unexpected memories evoked, the constant trial and error and the emphasis on self-discovery. The coaching encourages meta-thinking associated with the complexities of Penelope’s position and the intricate web of relationships of her roles inside and outside the organization.

The Executive Coaching set-up at the Tavistock Institute is meant as a support — it is constructive for Penelope as a person; coaching is good for clarifying roles; for improving performance of the system and the organisation and it is a space where the ‘scream’ of the CEO is heard. 

The title of this article ‘In space, no one can hear you scream’ references the film Alien (1979).

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