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The Evolution of the Executive: Leaders Scramble to Keep Pace with a Rapidly Changing World

​A century ago—about the time that the concept of the "company executive" took root in America—the typical CEO was practically a monarch.

He (and back then it was almost always a "he") wielded near-absolute authority with the help of a relatively tiny team. Very likely, he'd "grown up" in the organization, working his way up from lower positions to the top ranks, which gave him intimate insight into nearly every company operation. 

He probably had deep roots in the community where his enterprise was headquartered—worshipping at the same church as his subordinates, sending his children to the same schools, attending the same local fairs—which meant he forged close bonds with his workers.

Today, America's C-suite looks more like a democracy than a monarchy. Today's CEOs may have the final word, but they collaborate with a host of other executives—CHROs, COOs, CFOs—and their power is far more tempered by shareholders, boards of directors and even their own employees than in times past.

The era in which we now live and work is very different from the industrial era that characterized the 20th century until at least the 1980s. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the formation of the European Union, the rise of China, the digital revolution, globalization, climate change, the social revolution in many countries, the financial crisis in the first decade of the 21st century and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have cumulatively created an environment that is essentially a new world.

"The confluence of major developments over the past 30 years since I first took on an executive role has transformed our sector and those of all of our clients," said Michael Lurie, a partner at consulting firm McKinsey & Company. "This has led to major shifts in needs, interests and possibilities for all stakeholders—customers, employees, investors, suppliers and broader societies ... all at a greatly accelerated rate of change."