There are five types of CEOs. Which is right for your company?

Article Chris Erickson 7m read

It’s easy to think that all CEOs have similar approaches and perspectives—that they are cut from the same cloth—but that isn’t the case. Every CEO comes with their own skill set, temperament, personality, entrepreneurial vision, and risk profile. And not one of them is perfect (though some may beg to differ).

CEOs set the tone, strategy, and direction for your entire organization. Whatever your company is going through, your CEO should be up to the challenge. However, some CEOs are better suited to certain situations. Depending on what your company is facing, your CEO may or may not be the right person for that particular moment.

We’ve identified four healthy types of CEOs, each of which plays a different role in the lifespan of a business, along with their relative strengths and weaknesses. We’ve also identified the markers of an unhealthy CEO to help you see when a change may be necessary.

This list isn’t meant to award accolades or level accusations. Whether you’re determining the best fit for a coming hire or you (as CEO) are doing a little introspection, we hope it helps you recognize whether you have the right person at the helm.

The healthy types of CEOs (and one that isn’t).

This is horses for courses for CEOs. Different CEOs naturally perform better than others under a particular set of circumstances. Having the right CEO at the right time in your organization can be the difference between success and failure—or just meh.

  1. The visionary or founding CEO

    1. Often the founder, visionary CEOs lead by painting a picture of a bright new future. They are incredibly gifted at creating excitement around innovation and culture. Thinking about the possibilities of tomorrow is easier for them than dwelling on the realities of today. CEOs who are visionaries can be a force to be reckoned with, working tirelessly to fulfill their dreams and energizing those around them. 

    2. Strengths

    3. As the name suggests, these people usually have a clear vision in their heads, though they may need to improve at communicating it to their teams. Typically courageous and rarely risk-averse, these CEOs are big on passion. They love to grind through stuff and figure it out. They believe in what they’re doing wholeheartedly and try to instill that energy in others within the organization.

    4. Weaknesses

    5. Some of that passion can come at the price of follow-through, organization, and nailing the details. These CEOs prefer the big picture to the minutiae. They tend to race ahead, and since they see their company’s vision so clearly, it can take a while for their team to catch up. Distractions are also frequent: shiny objects, a book they just read, a recent podcast. A lot of half-baked ideas that never come to fruition. Additionally, they might struggle to entrust work to others on their team and get too involved in too much. Delegating is difficult for them.

  2. The wartime CEO

    1. These CEOs thrive on the challenge of fixing something, solving issues, and guiding organizations through the choppiest of waters. They work hard to make an impact quickly so they can hand things off to a CEO better suited for stable times. They can handle complete chaos and are motivated to transform organizations to a point when they can operate successfully in peacetime. They’re bored running a finely tuned machine. Think of Harvey Keitel’s character, “The Wolf,” in Pulp Fiction: a cool head for the stickiest situations. Wartime CEOs are great at shepherding companies through inflection points of any variety .

    2. Strengths

    3. Like an ER doctor after a mass casualty, wartime CEOs are good at triaging and treating patients with the most urgent problems. They rise to the occasion and love the excitement of solving crises that would be stressful for others. They’re task-oriented, results-driven, and excellent at marshaling resources to get the job done.

    4. Weaknesses

    5. They can grow impatient if they don’t quickly see the desired results. They might also look for problems where there are none. Wartime CEOs can sometimes lack long-term vision: they see how to get out of the current situation but might have difficulty looking beyond that horizon. Finally, they get the itch to move on when challenges subside, which isn’t a problem as long as it’s part of the plan.

  3. The operational CEO

    1. Where visionary CEOs are obsessed with pondering the future, operational CEOs are dedicated to building business machines. They’re skilled at bringing people together to solve the problems of today. Often stable and professional, operational CEOs are more like an orchestra’s conductor than a mad scientist. They will likely have MBAs and a resume of positions they followed systematically to reach the top.

    2. Strengths

    3. These CEOs are a steady, stabilizing force. They excel at putting the right teams in place and empowering them to do their work. And just as the orchestra conductor isn’t playing all of the musicians’ parts, they lead while allowing others to do what they were hired for. Typically the longest-tenured of the CEO types, they are exceedingly disciplined, structured, and organized.

    4. Weaknesses

    5. Big changes and the unexpected might challenge them ( see inflection points ). Operational CEOs can sometimes rely too heavily on their past experience and wisdom to spot real danger or to chart a different direction. Because they’re such a stabilizing force, their leadership style may lack a rallying cry and be subdued.

  4. The interim CEO

    1. As their title suggests, these folks are just passing through—by design. They might have the gig for six to twelve months. This is common during changes in ownership, such as when a private equity company steps into the picture. They may have already been on staff as another C-suite executive or a partner with the PE firm that acquired the company. They might be an older CEO on the brink of retirement or a younger CEO getting a little on-the-job training. Regardless, interim CEOs take on strategically temporary positions.

    2. Strengths

    3. Even though they’re short-timers, interim CEOs are typically stable and professional. They usually don’t carry huge egos and can be easy to work with. That said, they can make difficult, unpopular decisions that are impossible to avoid. They try to be a team player and know where they fit within the larger picture.

    4. Weaknesses

    5. Through no fault of their own, the impermanence of their position can be challenging. They are a stop-gap by design. The decisions they make while in the role will not necessarily be major, directional shifts. They don’t want to put anything in place that the next CEO will have to undo, or that would not be easy to rewind. They need to get everyone through the next year or so.

  5. The unhealthy CEO

    1. The fifth CEO—an unhealthy type—is a catch-all that covers a host of characteristics. They aren’t bad people, but they unintentionally create ineffective workplaces. Again, this is not to shame anybody. It’s to help owners, boards, and CEOs spot telltale signs of when to make a change. Beware these unhealthy CEO variants.

    2. CEO in title only

    3. This CEO has the title but doesn’t do the job. They often focus on the part of the business that interests them most, possibly aligning with what they did before becoming a CEO. When a technologist creates a company, becomes the CEO, and solely focuses on technology, they are a CEO in title only. CEOs delegate the doing. This CEO does the doing.

    4. Resistant/reluctant

    5. This person never wanted the job in the first place. They say things like, “I guess I’m the CEO.” It was thrust upon them by circumstance. The wrong person at the wrong time. They didn’t seek out the job, and don’t want to step into what the role requires. We’ve quite literally met someone who became a CEO due to a coin flip.

    6. Wishy-washy

    7. Here’s a CEO who doesn’t trust themselves to plant a flag in the sand, so they don’t. They defer or delay every decision, don’t own outcomes, and are completely risk averse. They over-delegate to others and then constantly second-guess what they do. They continuously seek data and external validation to ease their anxiety, which results in a zig-zag or dog-chasing-its-tail trajectory.

    8. Hands-off

    9. Checked out and disengaged, this unhealthy CEO doesn’t attend meetings, is unresponsive to calls and emails, and hopes the company will run itself. They don’t want to give their title away, so they stick around, “working” a couple of days here and there. They’ve earned a reputation as a complainer—it’s always someone else’s fault. This CEO is usually a founder and owner. Otherwise, they’d never get away with it.

    10. Consummate kool-aid drinker

    11. They think their product or service is beyond amazing and that customers love them so much that nothing ever needs to change. They have succumbed to their marketing and hype, to the degree that they can’t see threats or opportunities. They can’t entertain contrary or objective perspectives; when you can’t see what outsiders see in your business, you lose your potency as a leader.

    12. Lingerer

    13. This CEO should have retired five years ago. They still genuinely love the business, people, and job, so they don’t want to disassociate with it. But they should. They are an empty suit. Like the aging prizefighter who’s been knocked out six fights in a row, it’s time to hang up the gloves.

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Harness the power of organizational clarity to navigate change Read the article

CEOs can’t do everything. But they must do the right things.

If your organization finds itself with the wrong CEO at the wrong time (or you’re a CEO realizing this about yourself), you must make a change. It might sound scary, but it can be a game-changer.

Parliament has worked with all of these CEO types and helped them recalibrate and align with their company’s needs. If you want to learn more about how Parliament can complement your CEO’s strengths and weaknesses, let’s chat .