Worse Than Enemies: The CEO’s Destructive Confidant

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Harvard Business Review


The CEO is often the most isolated and protected employee in the organization. Few leaders, even veteran CEOs, can do the job without talking to someone about their experiences, which is why most develop a close relationship with a trusted colleague, a confidant to whom they can tell their thoughts and fears. In his work with leaders, the author has found that many CEO-confidant relationships function very well. The confidants keep their leaders’ best interests at heart. They derive their gratification vicariously, through the help they provide rather than through any personal gain, and they are usually quite aware that a person in their position can potentially abuse access to the CEO’s innermost secrets. Unfortunately, almost as many confidants will end up hurting, undermining, or otherwise exploiting CEOs when the executives are at their most vulnerable. The leader is often the last one to know when or how the confidant relationship became toxic. The author has identified three types of destructive confidants. The reflector mirrors the CEO, constantly reassuring him that he is the “fairest CEO of them all.” The insulator buffers the CEO from the organization, preventing critical information from getting in or out. And the usurper cunningly ingratiates himself with the CEO in a desperate bid for power.

Subjects Covered

CEO, Communication, Executives, Human behavior, Human relations, Interpersonal behavior, Interpersonal relations, Leadership, Personal strategy & style, Upper management.