Skip to main content

The Myths of Great CEOs

There are many myths and legends regarding the ingredients of Great CEOs… much of it as accurate as Robert Metcalfe’s 1995 that the Internet was a fad that would die in 1996.

Some of these myths regarding traits include that Great CEOs are:

  • Extroverts (they get their energy from people) – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Abraham Lincoln, Elon Musk…. are or were not extroverts.
  • Charismatics (they have a compelling charm that naturally draws followers) – No one is drawn to Warren Buffett because of his Charisma… he’s earned his followers through a long history of integrity, ability and ultimately performance.
  • Studious (they graduated with distinction from a top-tier university) In fact, a recent study by the CEO Genome Project found that only 7% of high performing CEOs had Ivy League degrees while 8% had no college degree.

Walking back the myths and analyzing data tells us a different story.  A study of 9,000 global executives by Russell Reynolds and Hogan Assesment Systems indicates that there are two major traits of top CEOs and multiple supporting traits.

What the Research Shows about Great CEOs

Most Important Leadership Traits

  • The Ability to Embrace Appropriate Risk – These CEOs don’t just play it safe… they take risks. Well calculated risks.
  • A Bias Toward Acting and Capitalizing on Opportunity – In line with risk-taking these CEOs act! They understand what General Patton meant when he said, “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”

Additional Traits of Great Leaders

  • Drive and Resilience – They are dedicated, they don’t give up and when they’re knocked down… they get back up.
  • Original Thinking – They don’t think outside the box (which is the most unoriginal way to express original thinking), they embrace unorthodox thinking. They rarely say, “we’ve always done it that way.” They blaze new paths.
  • Visualize the Future – They identify important trends and can predict outcomes of disruption. To use a well-worn cliche, they aim for where the target will be and not where the target is.
  • Team Building – They know their success is dependent on the team and not on their shoulders. They put the right people in the right seats on the right bus.
  • Active Communicator – They are transparent. People know what their thinking, what they’re focused on, what the leader thinks is important.
  • Catalyze Others to Action – All these traits taken in whole move their teams to action.

Distilled to its core the research shows that  Great CEOs display:

  • Passion and Urgency – Great CEOs show an intense sense of purpose and model behaviors that demonstrate passion and urgency – Want to be a great CEO? Model the behavior you desire from your team. That means put in the hours. Work and focus on activities that advance the company and not personal crap, theatre tickets, sports pools, water cooler gossip. Make sure your people see you’re serious about making the company successful. Let them know what you care about through words and deeds or don’t expect them to care.
  • Issue Distillation – Great leaders go straight to core issues. They have the innate ability to get to the essence of an issue. They eliminate the noise. Great CEOs can distill the companies activities in order to focus the team on the targets that drive success.
  • Attention to Results – The best CEOs focus on outcomes and results as opposed to their personal feelings and biases. They don’t micromanage their people. They assign tasks with measurable goals and due dates. Then hold the team accountable to meet them.

Are you a great leader? Are you the best CEO you can be (Hint: if you say yes then you are not)? Great CEOs don’t operate in a vacuum. They get feedback before they act. Many of the top-performing CEOs use a business coach to share what they can’t share with subordinates, board members, or family and friends. Want to see what it’s like to speak with an unbiased third party that can challenge your thinking without judging you? Want a safe place to vet your thinking? Try a complimentary, no-obligation one-hour, online coaching session by pressing that little button down there.