The Health Toll of Being a CEO

Underscoring the demands on leaders of an increasingly complex and stressful business environment, last year more CEOs died in office than in any year since 2010—and the number leaving for “personal reasons” doubled.

When a CEO leaves, an entire organization feels the reverberations. But when a CEO dies, it’s another thing entirely.

In what could be a disturbing indication of how all-consuming the role has become, 19 CEOs died in office last year, the highest annual total in at least a decade, according to new data. The only other year since 2013 where the number of CEO deaths exceeded 15 was in the COVID-outbreak year of 2020. The death of a CEO, which throws the traditional succession process into chaos, can send shockwaves through an organization, says Carolyn Vavrek, North American assessment and succession leader at Korn Ferry. “It’s an inflection point that can lead to instability,” she says, adding that it can affect everything from financial performance to talent retention to corporate strategy and culture.

That instability at the top has also grown due to the number of CEOs stepping down for “personal reasons,” which has soared over the last two years, doubling to 52 between 2022 and 2023 from just 26 between 2020 and 2021. While few CEOs give their precise reasons for stepping down, experts note that “personal reasons” is sometimes a euphemism for health concerns. For his part, Dennis Carey, vice chairman and co-leader of board services at Korn Ferry, says that even though the sample size is small, these figures underscore the degree of the stress leaders are experiencing. Contributing factors, he says, include geopolitical instability, the disconnect with younger generations over expectations of work, and the shift to AI. “Talent, strategy, and risk have all been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, and complicated further since then,” he says.  

The figures dovetail with what was already a record-setting year for CEO departures overall. In 2023, 1,914 CEOs left their positions, nearly 300 more than the previous all-time high set in 2019. What’s more concerning, according to experts, is that the departures aren’t exclusive to leaders who hung on too long. Quite the opposite, in fact—both the age and tenure of CEOs leaving their roles are down as well. Put another way, CEOs are remaining in the job for shorter periods of time and leaving it at a younger age.  

Boards should take this development very seriously, says Carey, from the perspective of both performance and succession. “CEOs could be leaving because they can’t manage the enterprise the way they used to,” he says. The worry for boards, he says, is that more frequent CEO turnover could mean that the leaders of the next generation will need to be called up before they are ready  

For the most part, firms are trying to address all of these changes. In the case of a CEO’s death, Vavrek says it’s important to allow time for an “emotional and business reset,” but also not to let too much time pass. “The less you say, the bigger the void for others to fill,” she says. “People start to worry about what will change and how much.” Tamara Rodman, senior client partner in the Culture, Change, and Communications practice at Korn Ferry, says that when a CEO dies it is incumbent on the leadership team and board to convey confidence and continuity. “It’s a balance between showing up with intention and mindfulness at the same time,” says Rodman.  

Experts say the stress and burnout CEOs are feeling, as well as the focus on mental health and wellness, has much in common with what their employees are going through. Everyone—CEOs included—is carefully considering the impact they can have on a job, and the impact the job can have on them, says Vavrek. “I’m seeing more leaders consciously identify the stressors that come with a title, and how they can be alleviated, before agreeing to take a role,” says Vavrek.  

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