They Don’t Make CEOs Like They Used To – Here’s Why That’s a Good Thing

CEO Succession
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Stephen Langton
April 29, 2022
6 min read
CEO Succession
Executive Summary
How we learn to and choose to lead has always depended on our heroes and anti-heroes: the role models that show us how to lead—or how not to.


These are the people we encounter throughout our careers, personally or via the media, whose leadership styles leave a serious impact on the way we want to lead—whether that’s positive ("Now, that’s the type of leader I want to be") or negative ("I'm never leading like that").

Over most of the last half-century, the champion CEOs were commonly valorized for their wealth, status, and achievement—their accumulation and status. Things are changing. While success against that profit motive is still celebrated, the reigning CEO ideal has now significantly broadened. 

The world demands more from leaders, and today’s CEO champions are the ones growing their businesses while also making the biggest social impact, championing diversity, and demonstrating altruism in service of the company and its people. (And quite frankly, these make for far more interesting role models.)

Why are the criteria for CEO role models changing?

Successful leadership models don’t materialize from the ether—they’re a response to external conditions. Different types of leaders are needed at different times, for different situations.
The leadership styles you’ll need when conditions are calm and clear differ from the styles you’ll need when the company is going through a PR disaster (or hemorrhaging profits, or facing redundancy due to disruptive technology, or battening down the hatches through a global pandemic, or…).

But competitive conditions aren’t the only change drivers. Companies and their existing leaders are recognizing that the factors that made them successful won’t keep them successful; external and internal environments are shaping the conditions for success faster than ever before. Emerging leadership styles also mirror the current zeitgeist—we are attracted to those who appeal to our values, priorities, empathies and hopes for the future. 

So even as preferred leadership styles change, it’s important to remember that it’s not always a simple progression from “worse” to “better”.

The old guard – and why it's changing…

Command-and-control leadership has been the most heralded (though also most frequently judged) leadership style over the past 50 years. Now, in the new light of more compassionate thinking, that dominating style has soured in the eyes of many, and is often, rightly or wrongly, villainized for being dated and unempathetic.

But, in many ways, command-and-control leadership was a reflection of the needs and constraints of its time. Companies were restricted by limited communication and connectivity, so having a strong, central vision became a driver for success. Rigid top-down hierarchies brought shape and clarity to large organizations. In short, that CEO champion emerged as a function of circumstances.

Today, lots of things have changed. Workforces are more distributed, but also more connected. Our relationship to work has broadened from purely transactional to something that incorporates social responsibility, wellness, and sustainability. And massive technology acceleration means skill sets have diversified and access to technology has been democratized.

It's not necessarily that command and control isn't compatible with these new conditions—but it certainly doesn't always necessarily capitalize on them.

Finding the sweet spot

Now, we’ve gone from emphasizing single, consolidated power to more egalitarian empowerment and enablement. The old way meant that the conditions of success in the organization were almost wholly dependent on the CEO. For today’s leaders, it’s about installing the conditions for your people to succeed—not being the harbinger of success.

This thinking isn’t new or revolutionary. Indeed, like most modern lessons, we just need to look a little further into the past for insight or solutions. Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher known for his maxims on successful leadership, said: “A leader is best when people barely know they exist, when their work is done, their aim fulfilled, those they lead will say: we did it ourselves.”

Today, if a CEO is still trying to do their people’s work for them, it’s likely a road to burnout. It’s a "heroism" that can manifest as self-harm. It’s clear that the “immortal” attitude among CEOs is entirely unsustainable.

Instead, the CEO role model today is now a vulnerable, realistic human being. Leaders are now stewards of collective success rather than owners of a single vision. But organization-wide empowerment is itself a skill that requires balance.

We know sole ownership, command-and-control leadership isn’t wholly suited for today’s circumstances. But reckless empowerment without a single guiding force is equally ineffective.

The challenge for leaders today now lies in finding the sweet spot: a happy medium where CEOs install, guide and maintain systems that empower their employees at every level, while acting as a central driver for the organization’s efforts, exerting control where it’s useful.

Where “The Leaders of the Future” fit in

If the traits you’re looking for in your next CEO reflect where your company is at today, you're going to face big problems down the line. To be truly successful, your CEO succession planning process needs to be forward-looking and explorative in schools of thought, not an embodiment of present (or past) ideals.

The CEO champions we choose are a reflection of what we—as people, companies, as a society—care for. So it's crucial to decide what leadership traits are important enough for us to demand in our next leaders. And even more so, it’s critical to think about what kind of leader will best fit within the future of your unique organization.

It's not about predicting the future; no one has a crystal ball, and goalposts can shift in an instant. What it is about is making an inference on where the future could—or should—lead, and developing a pipeline of talent to fit every possible contingency.

At Russell Reynolds Associates, we help companies identify, champion and develop these potential leadership candidates in an ongoing process. This means our clients have a steady flow of solid leadership prospects, no matter what happens.

How do we do it? The building blocks are already there. 

At Russell Reynolds, our speciality lies in identifying key leadership traits and the desire to lead in candidates, then setting them on a developmental path that will prepare them to take up the mantle of leadership either after the current CEO, or after the next, or the next.

To do this, we take the pulse of society and its workforce, identify what the current generation of employees considers important and what they expect, forecast the likelihood of a fundamental shift in coming years (based on data and historical trends)—and highlight and develop those qualities in tomorrow’s leaders.





Want to know more about picking future CEOs and developing internal talent that will reflect your company’s evolving needs?