I have worked for over twenty years as a business consultant with every type of CEO imaginable. I will be forever grateful for what I have learned. The greatest of these is that the driving force that makes or breaks any organization is the Chief Executive Officer. There are many ways CEO’s can be described. Since I have worked with over 1,000 of them I have a pretty good idea about what works and what doesn’t. Below is a short list of some basic descriptors to be mindful of since every CEO can fall into any one of these categories from time-to-time or into all of them:
Ostrich Archetype: When the going gets tough these CEO’s dive into minutiae. The shovels they use to dig holes in the sand are legendary. I see this most often with technical CEO’s. Some don’t tend to be visionaries and, when challenged, find it much more comfortable to get lost on their computers than to get out there and make their companies grow. They are constantly buried no matter what is taken off of their plate. They wisely latch on to task-driven doers. However, anything from sending a letter to reprogramming their software has to ultimately be taken care of by them. If they take a vacation there is a laundry list of items that simply cannot be handled by anyone else but them. They also tend to wait for things to happen for them (reactive) rather than making things happen (proactive). This allows them to bury their heads, further shielding themselves from ultimate responsibility when things start crumbling around them.
The Naked Emperor Archetype: Very typical of the first time business owner. It is usually a phase that every CEO evolves out of after a few humbling “bad” decisions are made. CEO’s can get stuck here, especially if they surround themselves with people that won’t tell them the truth. Staff members have their own agendas and if a CEO is easily manipulated, their employees can wreak havoc. I find this out when I hear the staff and the CEO beg me to help their company grow and then do everything in their power to undermine efforts at growth. A CEO that places too much in the hands of their staff, instead of listening to outside experts, can stay stuck on this treadmill for a long time. I have gone into an organization making a whirlwind of changes and seeing profitability rise. When I exit the organization to focus on another client, everyone falls right back into those old unworkable behavior patterns.
Staff can be both a hindrance and a great help. They can keep a CEO locked in place because they are not CEO’s. Most have never or will never run their own business. If the CEO is obtaining all ideas from them, she/he isn’t going to go very far. Things take forever to get done and yet everyone in the company is “overloaded” with work. This is when a CEO surrounds him or herself with people that tell them their clothes look great when they are actually naked. The only way I have seen a CEO get out of this trap successfully is to work with outside help and stick to it. The staff will do everything possible to derail the outside help and so will the CEO. If they can’t hear and implement hard line truths they will probably have a modest business that never really makes it clear from the “Rob Peter to pay Paul” stage no matter how much money the company makes.
Eeyore Archetype: This is a CEO that never really gets too excited about anything. They may have once been dynamic individuals but somewhere on their path in life they decided playing it safe and quiet was the road to success. These CEO’s grasp at overly zealous doers while resenting their passion and drive. I have definitely experienced my fair share of staff upsets over my recommended changes to an organization; however, people tend to move and get things done while I am around. All I have to do is take a short break and watch everyone go straight back to “just getting by” behavior patterns. If the CEO doesn’t have passion and drive of their own, they aren’t going to grow their company without help. Any brightly lit staff members with creative drive will delve straight towards resentment and complacency as quick as lightening. I hear all about it when I do my staff interviews. Unfortunately Eeyore Syndrome CEO’s tend to be very patronizing and count on others to breathe life into their companies. It simply is not going to come from them.
Puer Aeternus Archetype: Ah! My personal favorite. This one is dangerous especially in concert with the other four. This is a CEO that is running their company with the emotional compass of a five year old child. I had a well known psychiatrist ask me, “Can a Puer Aeternus actually make it to CEO status? I guess so if they own their own company. What a place to hide.” I worked with one CEO that did not care how much I was growing his business nor the records that were broken again and again by my firm in terms of sales and corporate restructuring. What he did care about was being admired and expected blind exclusivity. I was asked by him several times not to take on any additional clients. I didn’t take this request seriously and, of course, did take on new clients assuring him I would still be able to handle his business needs. His reaction was to jump up and grab the top of the door frame to his office and do pull ups exposing his abdomen. I sat in my chair in shock but couldn’t help following him to his office and asking him if he felt like some push-ups were now in order. These are the CEO’s that cross the line with staff and colleagues. I have worked with a few and rarely do these CEO’s get through business without fear of a lawsuit hanging over their heads. They tend to emotionally bleed all over their staff and colleagues because they are always looking to be rescued. When people they work with respond with an equal amount of emotion, these CEO’s slam on the brakes and effectively delve back into Ostrich Archetype behavior.
Working as a business consultant I have a unique vantage point. CEO’s will tell me things about their lives and what they really think of their staff. Too many times consultants are used as the sacrificial lamb to do these CEO’s dirty work so they can be the “good” guy/gal. I have been told a few times, “you are the only one I can really connect with here. Please don’t ever leave me. I’ve never met anyone like you” only to realize that these statements are made to everyone on his staff in “private.” This is a CEO that has narcissistic personality disorder and more interested in obtaining followers than growing their organization. There is no such thing as proper boundaries with these types and they will stay frozen in time when it comes to emotional growth which directly affects their business growth. Puer aeternus CEO’s don’t have the emotional maturity level to maintain proper boundaries. They also staff their organizations with codependent enablers and other narcissists (Naked Emperor Archetype). Their organizations will be staffed largely by women whom they regularly triangulate against each other simply for their amusement. They are eternally bored as narcissists are incapable of empathy. What else do they have to do with their time sans an emotional compass?
One CEO felt it was okay to come up behind me at my desk and rub my shoulders while pulling me into him. I had to move my desk so my back was up against a wall and talk to him about his behavior. Needless to say it was uncomfortable to watch the rash spread across his face while he sat on his hands and denied he meant anything improper. I told him I doubted his wife or an attorney would agree. I also witnessed the wife of this same CEO give him a dressing down in his office in front of his staff about “something going on” with one of his salespeople. He stood with his hands behind his back just outside his office looking like mommy caught his hand in a cookie jar. This is the lack of respect this person has for themselves but also for their family, their staff, and their colleagues. His wife cornered me on one of her rare visits to his office warning me, “Be careful. He has to have everyone love him.” I couldn’t help but notice the bitterness in her voice and sad expression on her face as she expressed this to me.
This Archetype shuts down during any type of confrontation making amends impossible. The tread marks of denial can be seen for miles. As many behavioral health providers have attested these personality types do not evolve from this behavior regardless of their transgressions. Sadly even several months after I stopped working with this CEO, he is still referring to his staff of almost entirely women as his harem or his angels. Let’s be “fair” though, he doesn’t actually say this himself. He inspires his staff to refer to him this way so, again, he can point the finger of blame at them. I confronted him many times, “How do you manage coming out smelling like a rose? You create monsters out of women by making promises you never intended to keep and pitting them against each other, they react passionately, and you sit back smiling while pointing at them for being ‘crazy’ while you’ve masterminded their behavior.”
Even more infantile and disappointing for all women in the workforce, he excels at hiring women that promote this sexist behavior themselves. I remember one of his original employees asking me to be part of his harem, I looked at her like she had three heads, looked at him and said, “Uh no I will NOT be part of his harem.” His response was a that of a little boy pouting saying, “You don’t have to be.” His first employee called me often to lament, “he always throws me over for whomever is new and worshiping him. He somehow knows when I’ve had it, smiles at me, gives me a crumb of attention, and I always forgive him.” We used to refer to this behavior of his as the “beheading of the queen.” Whomever new was hired be that an employee or vendor, he idealized that person dropping everyone else but eventually they ended up discarded as well, often in horrendously dehumanizing ways. Employees and vendors worked many hours overtime unpaid and his response was, “I don’t tell them to do this for me” as if this washed away his manipulative and destructive behavior.
Many CEO’s have lost their companies and damaged their reputation for this kind of behavior. The Puer CEO’s hire mini versions of themselves which only furthers their Naked Emperor Archetypal tendencies. They will stand up against anyone telling them the truth and hide behind their staff (Ostrich Archetype). It takes backbone, self-examination with professionals, and internal mettle to get beyond it and even then this is almost impossible. A whole lot of effort goes into creating and maintaining a facade which is why they reach out inappropriately on the people around them personally and professionally.
I finally had to walk away completely since reports of this CEO’s behavior to him directly and to his staff went straight to Ostrich and Emperor Archetype behavior. Not many on the payroll of any of these CEO Archetypes will do more than turn a blind eye no matter how badly a CEO is behaving. Sadly their staff will likely devote their entire career to covering for this CEO’s behavior. Many of them do not survive it. If the staff weren’t rife with their own issues, they wouldn’t work for this person would they?
Boiling Teapot Archetype: A colleague came to me very upset after witnessing a physically violent break-out between the CEO of a company and her office administrator. She was in the middle of training the entire organization on some new software when these two women attacked each other. Apparently the CEO was very unhappy with most of her employees. She never discussed their job performances or performed employee reviews calling them to task on any of their behavior. It was true that this company had some staff that needed to go but many were just looking for leadership and guidance. Because the CEO never said anything negative or positive to them they were left to steer the company ship on their own. Quite a number of them turned into workplace bullies with each other and their boss. This CEO let her anger and frustration boil to the point she lost control of herself. She also lost her company.
A great thing to remember as a CEO is that you don’t have to do everything yourself. One of the most successful CEO’s I have ever worked with was technically challenged and overly generous financially. He continues to be a stupendous success. What he figured out early on was that hiring consultants to help him grow and shake up himself and his staff was necessary. He was also a genuinely kind person and worked very hard on himself: emotionally, spiritually, and physically. He challenged himself as a human being seeking counseling and coaching when needed and encouraged his staff to do the same. Volunteer work was done by him every week and he made this a requirement of his employees. When I was hired by one of his competitors I talked to him about it and he cheered me on telling me, “There is enough business out there for everyone.” This was after I ruffled more than a few feathers by moving his staff out of positions where they were stagnant and into better suited positions where they blossomed. Our chess-playing paid off in profits and this CEO handled the game well. He was firm with his staff, respectful of me, and stuck with the changes. Over a decade later he still uses many of the systems we implemented together.
I have never had a blog post of mine create as much buzz as CEO Archetypes. It seems I hit a nerve and while all of the examples are from my own personal experience, it was a healthy outlet for me to write about these CEO types. The archetype that received the most commentary was the Puer aeternus CEO. While the comments were largely from women, I did receive many, many emails from men on this topic.
Unfortunately this CEO Archetype is the hardest to work with because of the “lack of maturity and willful blindness of the individual. If the CEO is the owner of the organization there is no path or system in place that allows for the reporting or disclosure to responsible leadership. This means that it can be difficult to investigate or followup to determine who else had been and was currently being treated badly. Harassment perpetrators are like chain smokers. Their smell is everywhere, almost no one escapes being affected and the smoker truly does not know the aroma they extend and the foul environment they perpetrate.” – Michael Niblack, consultant to the U.S. Navy.
Through my painful, firsthand experience with this archetype I did have previous vendors reach out to me. There is always a trail of “civil” unrest with vendors that are unfortunate enough to fall for the facade that is presented by this archetype. The ability to call these CEO’s to task is always a real possibility however they sprint from confrontation of any kind. Once you see them, and they know it, and then treat them for exactly who they are you are bullied and banished. You do have their disdainful respect though. Not the kind of respect you’d ever want. More like how a lion respects a jaguar. For now, I will continue to write and speak about this experience. Shining a spotlight on these situations brings awareness and judging by the sheer volume of emails from the article, seems to have helped many others in this difficult situation.
I had written the following quote, “When someone shrinks back, after your absence, to the person they were when you first met them, you were doing all of the heavy lifting”. Unfortunately with Puers in “power” positions a path to rehabilitation is typically after some type of personal tragedy that causes their foundation to crack or a lawsuit calling them to task for their behavior. Even then the pull to shrink back to habitual behavior patterns including the support they receive for continuing this behavior is quite alluring. Often the most support comes from their own staff, largely female. There is a significant dance between the adult man-boy and the enabling codependency of their female staff. A Puer in combination with the other archetypes could read an entire synopsis of their exact behavior without recognizing themselves which is why this archetype is so dangerous. Just Google the many articles on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
This topic will continue to be addressed. Please feel free to email me directly at email@example.com with your responses and questions.
Kristin Walker is the owner and CEO of everythingEHR, a behavioral health provider solutions advocacy firm. She is also the CEO of Mental Health News Radio Network, an advocacy network featuring behavioral health professionals, consumers, advocates, and vendors. If you have questions or comments for Kristin, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.