Executive Sparring - Lonely At The Top

For many people in leading positions, „lonely at the top" is not just a simple cliché, but rather a sad reality. A personal sparring partner can make a crucial difference.

For many people in leading positions, „lonely at the top" is not just a simple cliché, but rather a sad reality. A personal sparring partner can make a crucial difference.

The announcement of Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter's suicide shook the media earlier this summer, followed by the suicide of Pierre Wauthier, CFO of the Zurich Insurance Group, only a few weeks later. These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg and show us a sad reality that was confirmed by a study about executive coaching which was published by the Stanford Graduate School of Business the very same month: the pressure and thus the need for personal support on higher management levels are massive - and the consequences of neglecting these facts can be fatal.

Europe's shortcoming

While in the U. S. various forms of personal coaching and consulting have steadily become a usual and legitimate way of support for executives during the past 25 years, Europe is still falling behind in a habitual way. Here, a rather problem and deficit oriented perception is only beginning to shift towards a more resource and potential oriented way of seeing things, in which especially top-performers have a sparring partner at their side.

Having such a partner can be of enormous help. He or she can support executives in improving their self-awareness, in reducing blind spots, in developing their personal strengths even more and in growing in areas that are important to them. Over all, this leads to more authenticity and lasting contentment - for themselves and for their environment. The topics usually range from self-awareness and self-management to coping with stress, leadership and communication.

Emulated from top-class sports

This kind of partnership can best be compared with top-class sports, where the function of a personal sparring partner or coach originally stems from. If we look back in time, when terms such as 'sparring partner' or 'coach' didn't even exist, personal and professional topics were often discussed with friends, family members, close confidants or even a priest. Of course, these persons can still be an excellent choice, provided that one has the opportunity and access to them.

If we go even further back in time, kings often confided with their court jesters - the only people with the official permission to confront his majesty with the truth. So obviously, people have always seeked someone who would listen to them without prejudice and who would give them open and honest feedback, when required.

Social isolation and pressure have increased

Ever since those days, our society has changed drastically. In the age of technology with its increasing possibilities of digital communication, genuine dialogue has fallen by the wayside and social isolation has massively increased. Rising up the career ladder can further increase the feeling of loneliness - and what that can lead to is described in the introduction of this article. This being said, for people in top-positions, it is absolutely fundamental to be able to exchange thoughts openly, to talk about their fears and concerns and discuss possible solutions.

Leaders are expected to solve seemingly unsolvable situations and make the right decisions. Pressure is often huge and what works for a certain period of time and with enormous effort can quickly change through a culmination of various factors: suddenly, thoughts are blocked in a problem trance, solutions seem to be out of reach, the impression of failure becomes more and more present and the feeling of self-effectiveness drastically decreases. The old faith in one's own capacities needs to be re-established.

Executive Sparring - a comprehensive companionship

Executive Sparring goes far beyond classic consulting or coaching. Most clients' situations are complex and require a dynamic mix of roles from the conversation partner. If specialized only in the role of a consultant or coach, it will hardly be possible to provide the comprehensive support that is needed. Therefore, a professional sparring partner must not only possess broad methodological competence, but most of all particularly human qualities. Only on this basis, co-creation can happen - a close collaboration on even par that is fertile ground for amazing insight and solutions, given that both parties are open and get involved in the process.

Just talking

Finally, there are clients that don't even necessarily follow a clearly set goal when working with a sparring partner. They just cherish the regular exchange and room for trustful conversations with someone who is neutral, unbiased and who doesn't have a personal agenda. This can be well understood, especially when there are certain topics for which none of the previously mentioned groups of people seems to be the right one. These conversations can take place in various settings: in the sparring partner's or the client's premises, on a walk in the park, in hotels, on car rides or even during flights. And it goes without saying that utmost discretion and confidentiality are a given at all times.


Personal support for executives is no longer a luxury. It is fundamental in order to successfully face future challenges. The stigma of the manager that doesn't seem to make it on his own is slowly giving way to an image that resembles one of a top athlete. Someone who can not only afford having a personal sparring partner but who confidently shows this as a privilege and sign of authenticity and the ability for self-reflection.

For more information, go to: www.gelmi-consulting.com

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