Two bullet-proof solutions for the executive suffering from "lonely at the top" syndrome

As any CEO will tell you, it’s lonely at the top. A smart executive will be sure to have that one individual to whom they can turn in the most difficult times. A CEO needs a safe space where he or she can find reassurance, a shoulder to lean on, and a pair of ears to listen, free of judgment. It’s not his or her Chief of Staff or Executive Assistant. It’s not the General Counsel or CFO. It’s probably not his or her best friend from college or even spouse.

An executive’s choice in furry confidant could say a lot about his or her leadership style and communication needs. We all know that the world is divided into two kinds of people: dog people and cat people. Certainly there are exceptions who claim “both” or “neither,” but most of us can identify as Team Dog or Team Cat without much thought. While we are a long way off from asking our executive candidates which camp they fall into, it’s quite likely that there is insight to be gained about a person’s leadership style and approach to solving problems depending upon their pet preference.

Research presented last year at the Association for Psychological Science meeting confirmed what many of us already knew: cat people and dog people are different. Let’s look first at Team Dog. Dog lovers tend to be more energetic and outgoing and have a stronger penchant for following the rules. Those energetic, outgoing qualities certainly will serve a corporate leader well, particularly those that need to be focused externally with press, strategic partnerships, investors, and the Street. Demanding schedules and the need for unrelenting focus and determination to make the right decision certainly requires a high energy level. As for “following the rules,” while many leaders might not immediately think of themselves as rule-followers, an emphasis on process, corporate values, and regulatory guidelines is needed to succeed in a large corporate environment, particularly that of a publicly traded company.

Examples of dog-loving leaders abound. President Obama has two Portugese waterdogs, Bo and Sunny, and a quick role call of Presidential pets is overwhelmingly canine heavy. George Washington had seven pups (Sweetlips, Scentwell, Vulcan, Drunkard,Taster, Tipler, and Tipsy) and not one cat. Franklin D. Roosevelt matched George with his own seven dogs (Fala, Major, Meggie, Winks, Tiny, President, and Blaze). JFK had 10 dogs at the White House, along with parakeets, ponies, a cow, rabbit, and horse…and one cat.

On the corporate side, Bill Marriott of Marriott International wrote fondly of his golden retriever, Murphy, on his blog for years, and last year posted a stirring farewell to the pup when he passed away in July. Murphy was the third golden retriever for Mr. Marriott. The President and CEO of Petsmart, David K. Lenhardt, proudly poses with his Goldendoodle, Hanalei, in his executive bio portrait. It makes sense that a top leader would turn to a dog at the end of a difficult day. No dog will ever have a hidden agenda but rather will offer unconditional love and enthusiasm. It’s lonely at the top, and dogs can be relied upon for companionship in a way that cats just can’t. 

The characteristics closely associated with cat people, according to the study, were introversion, open-mindedness, and greater sensitivity than their dog-people compatriots. The cat lovers also tended to be more intelligent, and less likely to follow the rules. One could argue that the cat enthusiasts make excellent entrepreneurs, as they value independence, unconventional thinking, and trailblazing. The extra intelligence doesn’t hurt either. One must have a healthy dose of self-esteem and strong sense of self when looking to a cat for comfort after a hard day. Mittens has her own agenda, and she is not there merely to prop up her human’s self-worth and need for attention. Mittens has her own mysterious and exciting life to lead and will get to you when she is ready. Cats are independent, and independent thinkers are likely to be drawn to this quality.

Exhaustive research has failed to produce an executive bio that includes a picture with the cat. That’s not likely because of a lack of love for cats amongst leaders, but rather cats have no interest in being rolled out as a prop for some photograph. Abraham Lincoln, no stranger to pets given his White House was populated by dogs, goats, a pet turkey, horse, and rabbit, had two cats named Tabby and Dixie, and once remarked that Dixie "is smarter than my whole cabinet." According to the official website for the National Park Service, when asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Todd Lincoln replied, “cats.”

Cat or dog, hamster or horse, our furry friends are an indispensable ally once we step off the battlefield. Studies have shown that playing with the dog or petting the cat raises serotonin and dopamine levels, and can stave off high blood pressure and depression. All that for the warm place to sleep and a bit of kibble every day. That’s a great return on investment.  

Images © Sarah Mitchell, Win McNamee/Getty, Corbis

Tell us what you think!