Why CEOs want to be explorers not rulers

There’s something very interesting happening with CEOs (and I don’t mean resignations and scandals). Many are turning their back on the classic CEO archetype – the Ruler – and building their leadership around a different model.

Archetypes are a fascinating way to analyse leadership styles. Drawing on ancient traditions of storytelling, psychologist Carl Jung developed 12 primary archetypes, some of which he believed can be found in each of us. For leaders, understanding your archetype is a key way of gaining insight into your style and source of motivation.

There have always been different examples of leadership archetypes – from the rebellious Richard Branson to the sage Bill Gates – but the classic CEO archetype was the ‘Ruler’.

Ruler CEOs are the powerful corporate kings (nearly always male) who hire and fire at will, surrounded by a court of advisers and consiglieres, enjoying the trappings of power like lavish offices in grandiose buildings.

If you want an example of a Ruler CEO, look no further than Donald Trump, the US billionaire, host of US TV show The Apprentice and aspiring President.

Yet many CEOs no longer fit this model. Today, modern CEOs often work in modest open plan offices, manage by inspiration rather than dictat, and show no desire to cling on to the role by their fingernails until they are dragged from the building. On the contrary, they are already thinking about their next move and mentoring their successor.

So what’s changed?

It seems many modern CEOs don’t want to be Rulers. They are looking for a different archetype for business leadership.

Based on my experience working with CEOs, I think most would rather be Bear Grylls than Donald Trump. This isn’t just because of Bear Grylls’ looks; nor, indeed, his natural instincts for survival.

Bear Grylls is an adventurer, an intrepid explorer, always discovering different places and amazing new experiences. This, for many CEOs, is the perfect archetype.

In terms of their business leadership, the Explorer CEO helps their organisation move beyond its existing boundaries, expanding into new territories or products and discovering new ways to satisfy their customers.

Their leadership style is built around their love of their mission and the inspiration they offer others to follow in their footsteps.

Their personal goals are all about the journey, not the destination. Get to the top of the mountain, and they will want to climb another.

Explorer CEOs are also natural innovators. Their incessant drive for the new makes them always on the lookout for the next big thing.

Finally, Explorer CEOs should be closer to the business too, less sat in their lofty towers, more hands-on and inquisitive about exactly what their organisation is doing – a behaviour that would have been welcome in some of the recent corporate scandals.

What’s it like to be managed by an Explorer CEO? Well, it should be inspiring, but it could be frustrating too.

Explorer CEOs are passionate about what they do and this often makes them exciting and motivational leaders. However this passion can make them demanding bosses, as they seek a similar level of drive in those around them.

They are team-builders because they know the expedition cannot be completed alone and it requires a broad mix of people and skills. However they can sometimes struggle to explain why they want people to go the extra mile. “Because it’s there” (as George Mallory said to justify the climbing of Everest) may not be enough rationale for everyone.

Explorer CEOs’ desire for innovation can also mean they are a little restless. Organisations that lack fresh challenges or expanding horizons might be too tame to keep them occupied for long. This might be a downside for the business but a potential upside for their team. Unlike a Ruler, they won’t hog the hot seat for ever, meaning a chance for others to take a turn.

The rise of the Explorer CEO provides an interesting counter to the stereotype of business leadership. Expect fewer bosses sat in towering offices behind grand desks shouting “You’re fired!” Expect more asking us to join them on a team-building hike up a mountain.