Identifying Problematic CEO Archetypes
In over 20 years as a business consultant, I’ve encountered many different CEO archetypes, come across quite possibly every form they can take—both the great and the grateful as well as the overcompensating and the underperforming. For the good with the bad, I will forever be grateful because what I have learned from these experiences has afforded me a wealth of lessons that act as riches I can not only use myself but also pass along to future clients and colleagues from here on out.
While I find it necessary to note that I’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderfully genuine and genius CEOs, and have assuredly benefited greatly from such gems, the lessons learned from problematic and seemingly problem-seeking CEOs stand out more strikingly in my mind—perhaps because they were “taught” in such a jarring way. Or perhaps it’s simply my way of turning negative experiences, due to certain professionals’ lack of skill, effort, energy, or otherwise, into something greater.
In either case, I’ve found the greatest of these lessons, by far, to be that a CEO—for better or worse—is the driving force that makes or breaks any organization. From the 1,000-plus CEOs I’ve worked with in the past two decades, and the thousands more hours that went into that work, certain CEO archetypes revealed themselves to be more common, and certainly some more dangerous, than others. Though this advice does not come lightly or with abandon, I believe the below archetypes warrant the most caution—with the most concern of any given to those who carry with them tendencies of many, if not all.
Ostrich Archetype: When the going gets tough, the Ostrich CEO dives straight into minutiae. The shovels these CEOs use to dig holes in the sand are legendary. (I see this most often with technical CEOs.) Some tend to lack vision and, when challenged, find it more comfortable to get lost behind their computers than taking a chance and a solid stance to make their companies grow.
No matter what the workload (or how much is taken off their plate), they are constantly buried and, wisely, will latch on to task-driven doers. Even still, they ensure every task—from sending a simple letter to reprogramming their software—must be completed with their hands. Perfect example: When an Ostrich CEO is out of the office on vacation, it’s not uncommon for a laundry list to be left behind of items—both important and mundane—that simply cannot be handled by others.
Ostrich CEOs also tend to wait for things to happen for them (reactive) rather than making things happen (proactive). This unfortunately allows them to bury their heads in the stagnant sand, further shielding themselves from ultimate responsibility when the walls of their business start crumbling around them.
The Naked Emperor Archetype: Very typical of the first-time business owner, the Naked Emperor is usually a phase that CEOs evolve out of quickly after a few humbling “bad” decisions are made. However, it’s possible for CEOs to get stuck in this head space, especially if they surround themselves with people who won’t tell them the truth. As staff members tend to encase their own agendas befitting their self-interest, CEOs who are easily manipulated can be lead astray when heeding only their employees’ advice (instead of their own ideas).
I saw this happen firsthand when a certain CEO, along with his staff, begged me to help their company grow. I then proceeded to watch as certain staff members did everything in their power to undermine any efforts at growth. While trusted staff members can do a company a world of good in the right context, a CEO that places too much in the hands of their staff, instead of listening to outside experts and their intuition, can get stuck on this treadmill indefinitely.
To be sure, staff can be a great help but also a hindrance if relied on too much. As most employees will never run their own business—with some not even desiring such control or responsibility—obtaining all ideas from those on the ladder below can be cumbersome and unproductive. Often, this can lead to tasks taking too long to get completed while everyone in the company remains “overloaded” with work. This is generally when Naked Emperor CEOs surround themselves with people who tell them their clothes look great when they are actually naked—and their business is suffering.
Sometimes not even seeing will make this CEO archetype believe. Once I helped a certain organization make a whirlwind of changes to help unleash new growth potential. Yet even after seeing concrete profitability start to manifest, my exiting the equation saw everyone fall right back into their old, unworkable (and unprofitable) behavior patterns.
The only way I have seen a CEO get out of this trap successfully is to work with outside help and open up to fresh ideas and new paths. Staff will likely exert extra effort to derail such outside help, as will the CEO. Yet if this archetype CEO can’t learn to hear and then implement hard-line truths, he or she will find it difficult to clear the “rob Peter to pay Paul” stage, no matter the monthly gains.
Eeyore Archetype: The Eeyore archetype never really gets too excited about anything. These CEOs may once have been dynamic individuals, but somehow they lost their way along their professional or personal path, at some point deciding to play it safe and make no waves as the best way forward. These CEOs grasp desperately at overly zealous doers while silently resenting their passion and drive.
Although I have experienced my fair share of staff upsets over my recommended changes to an organization, most people tend to move and get things done while I am around. Yet when I take a short break from staff under an Eeyore leadership, everyone resorts straight back to “just getting by” behavior patterns.
If a CEO doesn’t have passion and drive of his or her own, this person will never grow a company without help. Any brightly lit staff members with creative drive will delve straight toward resentment and complacency as quick as lightening—that’s if they don’t head for the door. I’ve heard this time and again during my staff interviews. Unfortunately, Eeyore syndrome CEOs can be patronizing and often count on others to breathe life into their companies—because without that life energy of their own, it simply is not going to come from them.
Boiling Teapot Archetype: The Boiling Teapot CEO archetype, who holds thoughts, feelings, and feedback inside to the point of a meltdown, can bring workplace chaos to a new level—and to a place staff should never have to experience in a professional setting.
One colleague once came to me visibly upset after witnessing a violent altercation between the CEO of a company and her office administrator. She was in the middle of training the entire organization on a new software system when a physical fight broke out between these two women. Apparently, the CEO was quite unsatisfied with the majority of her employees, yet she never attempted to communicate such in a professional way—or at all—prior to her final meltdown.
No discussion of job performances where she could highlight, and then correct, any unsatisfactory or unacceptable behavior. No regular employee reviews. Sure, this company had some staff members who needed to go, but many were just looking for leadership and guidance. Because the CEO never offered any feedback, be it positive or negative, employees were left to steer the company ship on their own.
In addition to steering the company into the ground, quite a number of employees under Boiling Teapot leadership can also turn into workplace bullies, likely because they know (and are shown) no better. When this particular Boiling Teapot CEO let her anger and frustration bubble up to the point where she lost control of herself, she subsequently, and not surprisingly, also lost her company.
Puer Aeternus Archetype: Ah, my personal favorite—if only for its supreme distaste and inappropriateness. While typically not physically violent, this archetype is dangerous, especially in concert with the other four. The Puer Aeternus CEO, Latin for eternal boy, runs his company with the emotional compass of a five-year-old child.
I once worked with a Puer Aeternus CEO who did not care how much I was growing his business nor the records that were broken by my firm in terms of sales and corporate restructuring. What did he care about? Being admired—and he expected blind exclusivity. As such, 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 of my professionalism and ensuring I would still be able to handle his business needs.
His reaction? 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, at which time I ignored his act of unprofessionalism and calmly asked if he felt like some push-ups were now in order. He sat with his head buried in his hands waving me off. I wasn’t sure if he was actually embarrassed or just feigning embarrassment. He seemed to be extremely adept at mimicking the emotions of others in order to appear somewhat normal. He also felt it was completely within his right to sneak up behind me at my desk and rub my shoulders while pulling me into him. I moved my desk so my back was up against a wall and talked to him about his behavior. The flat out denial or acceptance of any responsibility for his constant sexual harassment was eerie to witness. Having to explain to a grown man that this is not appropriate and ask him how he thought his wife would feel if she knew how he was acting was the final determiner of mine to move into my own office, in a separate building.
This CEO archetype has narcissistic personality disorder and is more interested in obtaining followers than growing an organization. These are the CEOs who will cross the line with staff and colleagues, without hardly a second thought—hence the danger. While thankfully not your everyday occurrence, I have worked with a few and rarely do these CEOs get through business without fear of a lawsuit hanging over their heads. Why? They mimic the emotions of whom they perceive will give them what they want (sales, money, attention, labor) and then feign emotional attachment with this person(s). It feels as if they are bleeding emotionally all over their inner circle of staff and colleagues because they are always looking to be rescued. And when someone responds to their outlandish behavior with an equal amount of emotion, these CEOs will slam on the brakes and delve right back into Ostrich archetype behavior.
Proper boundaries don’t exist with this type of leader and they will forever stay frozen in time when it comes to emotional growth, which will directly affect their business growth. This archetype shuts down during any type of confrontation, making amends improbable if not 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 what consequences may come from their transgressions.
Even though such behavior can destroy companies and damage reputations, the Puer Aeternus CEO generally won’t foresee such consequences. It takes backbone, in-depth self-examination, and internal mettle to get anywhere in a professional relationship with such a personality, and even then it is almost impossible.
A word of advice for any survivor of this particular archetype: move on quickly to greener and healthier pastures. This archetype will most likely stay in business for a long time but, make no mistake, there is always pending danger looming overhead because they are handicapped by their personality disorder. While the facade they maintain may always seem successful, rest assured it is a facade. The same facade that they (and their staff) will work tirelessly to maintain long after your exit.
As this is a particularly damaging and destructive archetype, I’ll delve deeper into the specifics of how a Puer Aeternus CEO can overstep boundaries as well as the business dynamics I’ve experienced firsthand under such leadership in the next series of this installment.
Avoiding Problematic Archetypes
A great piece to remember as a CEO is that you don’t have to fall into one of these traps—and you don’t have to perform every task, or solve every problem, alone. There are countless CEOs today who’ve reaped the rewards of knowing their limits, then reaching out to others to surpass those and reach for new heights.
One of the most successful CEOs I have ever worked with was technically challenged and overly generous, financially and otherwise. 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 were 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 he encouraged his staff to do the same. He pursued volunteer work weekly and made this a requirement of his employees as well.
After I was hired by one of his competitors, I sought his opinion on the matter. Instead of recoiling from the potential competition, he cheered me on: “There is enough business out there for everyone.” Indeed.
That isn’t to say we never hit hurdles in our business relationship, and I wasn’t always the bearer of great news to all his staff. I ruffled more than a few feathers when I moved some of his staff out of positions where I felt they were stagnant and into better-suited positions, where they eventually blossomed. But throughout my dealings with this CEO, we maintained candid communication and he (and I) remained open to the exchange of ideas, leaning on each other’s strengths when necessary.
Our chess-playing paid off in profits and this CEO handled the game well. Through it all, he was firm but fair with his staff, respectful of me, and stuck with the changes for the long haul (while reaping the long-term rewards). More than a decade later, he still uses many of the systems we implemented together.
This topic will be addressed in an ongoing manner. Please feel free to email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org 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 host of a weekly, Internet radio show Mental Health News Radio. The show caters to behavioral health professionals, consumers, advocates, and vendors. If you have questions or comments for Kristin, please email her at email@example.com.