CEO Leadership Characteristics: Who Do You Need To Be As A Leader?

My last two columns have addressed what CEOs and other senior leaders need to know and what they need to do. But who do you need to be? What are CEO leadership characteristics? Here is a excerpted section from my book, “Never Kick A Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be.”

I have been fortunate to work with some great leaders, and over the years have identified that they all had some common CEO leadership characteristics. While they all had aptitude for business and were intelligent, they all learned these common capabilities somewhere in their career.

These are what I believe to be the seven mantras of successful leadership.

Mantra # 1: Successful Executives Are Not Nice!

From the minute we engage with other humans (and even pets!) our parents tell us, “Be nice!” This is intended to be a catchall for eliminating behaviors like hitting, screaming, crying, or anything that makes the other people in the sandbox feel bad.

As we get older, we’re rewarded for being nice. When my kids were in elementary school, their teachers frequently complimented them for being nice, as in, “He hasn’t turned in any of his homework and has failed the past three tests, but he’s such a nice boy!”

As adults, we continue to be rewarded for being nice. My wife is nice. When someone knocks on the door trying to sell magazine subscriptions or cookies, or even trim our trees, she happily has a meaningful conversation with whoever interrupted dinnertime.

Practically, there isn’t much harm in this behavior. The worst-case scenario is a nominal loss of time and too many Girl Scout cookies in the pantry. However, when we lead and manage others, being nice isn’t always the most effective approach.

There’s a substantial difference between being nice and being kind. Nice is born out of fear, and kind is born out of love. The fear of not being liked, or fear of conflict, prevents us from speaking the truth. But if we are kind, we will overcome that fear. Most of the time, you are willing to tell someone you love that they are making a big mistake, even at the risk of offending them or hurting their feelings.

Now let’s apply this nice versus kind behavior to the work environment. Nice managers will always find something to compliment. Kind managers will tell you what you need to know to succeed, even when the message is that your current practices are screwing things up. Nice leaders don’t want anyone to feel bad, but when they stand in the middle of the road, they end up getting hit by traffic going both ways. Not only do they fail to protect people’s feelings, they end up losing a lot more than just the smile on their face.

Mantra # 2: Visibility and Volume: Great Leaders are Seen and Heard 

CEOs often fall into the trap of believing that if they say something once, or send out a memo, it will happen; like Captain Picard of Star Trek’s Enterprise when he said, “Make it so!” in his deep baritone voice. Sorry, but that dog don’t hunt! It takes so much more.

If a CEO has one key role, it is the keeper of the strategy—but more on that later. For our purposes here, just know that in order to execute that strategy, leaders must be visible and they must be excellent communicators. That doesn’t mean that you must have a voice like Nat King Cole, the charisma of Bill Clinton, or the word choice of Ernest Hemmingway. However, it does mean that you must maintain the ability to deliver compelling messages of strategic importance and carry the persistence to stay on task and in the trenches.

Think of the great leaders that you admire. They all have different styles. Some may be downright goofy, but they probably all have the ability to get the message across in a way that galvanizes action. Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, Margaret Thatcher, Jack Welch, Bill Clinton, and Martin Luther King are as different as night and day, but they are all leader’s who had the ability to get people to follow them through their use of language and their ability to be both seen and heard.

But how? My opinion is that great leaders are both seen and heard through the manner in which they communicate. These communication skills are fundamental, if not imperative, to the message you send and the medium through which you send it. If we are going to build great leaders, we are going to have to first create fantastic communicators. Through speech, writing, and any other way leaders offer the “message,” the goal has got to be to make it clear, precise, strategized, and fundamentally aligned with the company’s purpose.

Communication skills can be learned. If you are going to be an effective leader, communicating in a compelling fashion should be near the top of your list for personal development. The content (i.e. vision and strategy) is critical as well, or you’ll be—as they say in Texas—all hat and no cattle. To state the obvious, if you do not have the ability to get people to follow you, you’ll never lead effectively. And if your followers don’t know what you want, they wont know in which direction to travel.

Real Lesson: If you don’t communicate effectively, get some training and put some effort into it! You must be visible (which in today’s world can involve technology), you must stay on message, and you must say it forcefully.

Mantra # 3: Effective Leaders Embrace Conflict to Create Change 

Conflict is one of the topics with which CEOs most often struggle. Unfortunately, the prevalent mindset is that you should minimize it. That is wrong—you should optimize it. Let me explain.

I recently gathered a group of executives together to discuss organizational conflict. Early in the conversation, I asked them to rate the level of conflict in their organization on a specific scale. On one end of the continuum was a high level of conflict both in frequency and veracity, with personal attacks as commonplace. On the other end of the scale was conflict avoidance where everyone was “nice,” but important issues were completely ignored. In the middle was optimal conflict, where people were comfortable speaking their mind, differing opinions were explored with focus on the issue rather than individuals, and the arguments were evidence based. Most every executive rated their organization as being firmly on the conflict avoidance side of the scale.

If there is too much conflict in your organization, you will not have productive conversations. People will worry more about winning the argument than moving the business ahead. In extreme situations—usually the result of a highly combative CEO—there are two possible scenarios. The first is the company is full of aggressive people who care much more about their personal gain than the success of the team. The second scenario is that the company chews through talented people who won’t allow the abuse, and is therefore left with very weak players. If there is too little conflict, the end result is the same: business suffers. Good ideas are not surfaced and silly behavior is tolerated because no one wants to hurt feelings.

Organizations with too much conflict or too little conflict often have the following characteristics:

  •  Confusing organizational design and/or authority limits
  •  Objectives, strategy and vision not clear
  •  Values not clearly stated
  •  Lack of trust
  •  Unwillingness to hold others accountable
  •  Hallway reversals allowed (lack of commitment)
  •  Some bad apples on the team
  •  CEO not modeling the correct behavior
  •  Misaligned rewards

Remember, the objective is not to minimize conflict, but rather to optimize it!

Real Lesson: You, as CEO, must be comfortable with healthy conflict and optimize it in your company.

Mantra # 4: Fantastic Leaders Value Heart And Strength 

CEO’s are supposed to be infallible, but in reality they are human, and when they keep emotions bottled up, the consequences can be substantial. Effective executives are not only courageous and forceful, but they are also vulnerable and demonstrate that they have big hearts. They are always confident, but not always certain. In fact, the most fantastic leaders in the world care deeply for those that they lead. They trade open door policies for open ear practices, always willing to listen to, and support their team. They find time to dive into the lives of their colleagues, and are willing to build relationships based on a genuine and authentic care for team member’s personal and professional concerns.

Strong executives may be collaborative, but they’re decisive. They may be kind, but they don’t avoid tough decisions. They likely understand and support pushing decisions to the lowest effective level, but they insist on great execution at that level. They don’t need to control all the details, but they insist on high performance.

Real Lesson: You can learn to be strong, as long as you are not afraid to show vulnerability and ask for help. Strength and vulnerability are not mutually exclusive!

Mantra # 5: IQ ≠ EQ

It’s not good enough to be smart. That may get you into a leadership role, but it is emotional intelligence (often abbreviated “EQ” or “EI”) that will allow you to succeed. As an executive, there are some things that you should know about emotional intelligence.

Here are three of the most important:

  1. You can measure it.
  2. You can improve it.
  3. You are more likely to get fired for lack of EQ than IQ!

If the last point didn’t get your attention, it really might be an IQ issue! Differing models use different language, but for our purposes, let’s stick with the basics from Daniel Goleman’s model and talk about self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness and social skill.

Self-awareness means that you have a solid understanding of what you are good at and the areas where you need to improve. If someone were to ask all of those who engage with you to describe your style, personality, and habits, these should mirror your own description. We are all breathing our own exhaust to some degree, but it is very important that the image you have of yourself is not significantly different than the image others have of you.

Self-management means that you can take your self-awareness and do something with it. It means that you don’t fly off the handle frequently. It means that you are able to remain calm even when you are fearful. It means that you can delay gratification and can adjust to fluid situations. This can all be enhanced with practice and coaching. Once again, if you have challenges in this area, it is imperative to have someone who can help you through this, someone who will be a truth-talker.

Social awareness means that you are able to understand how others are feeling. It means that you are able to understand social clues like facial expressions, language, and posture. It means that you can anticipate how people will act and feel in many situations. Great sales people (not the show-up-and-throw-up variety!) often have a high level of social awareness. As a CEO, you are often selling your ideas, and the manner in which you communicate them is critical.

Social skill means that you know what to do with your awareness of others. The leader who relies on position authority—“I’m the CEO, damn it!”—rather than the authority that comes from social skill is rarely successful in the long-term. With social skill you can adjust your style to make people want to listen to you. You can inspire and influence others. You know how to make friends. You know how to negotiate. You understand the power of questions rather than making pronouncements. This is the backbone for EQ.

IQ is important, especially if you are a rocket-scientist. But to be a great leader, IQ plays a significantly smaller role than your ability to communicate, implement strategy, and lead a team all the way to the promised land of success.

Real lesson: Have others who know you well (and who will speak the truth!) help identify your level of self-awareness and social-awareness. If you are lacking, create an action plan to improve. Pick up a copy of Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, if you’d like a better understanding of this mantra.

Mantra # 6: Ask a Great Question Today! 

Isador Rabi, a recipient of the Nobel prize for physics, gives credit to his mother for helping him become a scientist. He said that when he was a child, his friends’ mothers would ask their children when returning from school, “Did you learn anything today?” Yet his mother would ask, “Did you ask a good question today?”

Those of you who are basketball fans know that sometimes an outgunned team can win the game by slowing it down, controlling the pace, and thereby playing a more surgical game. Run and gun doesn’t always win the day. As a business leader, sometimes you need to slow the game down and be more thoughtful in your approach. It is very easy for an individual or a team to respond to a question, and then they are off to the races—down the wrong road!

Here are some examples of reframing questions:

  • Rather than asking, “How should we grow our European market?” you might ask, “Where will we receive the best return on our investment in growth?”
  • Rather than asking, “How should we solve this problem?” you might ask, “Is this problem large enough to allocate resources to solve?”
  • Rather than asking, “Should we be focused on top-line or bottom-line growth next year?” you might ask, “How can we grow our top line next year without compromising our margins?”

Get the idea? Framing questions effectively is one of the most valuable skills you can develop as an executive! Take the time to think before you speak and always understand the type of answer you are seeking, so you can better tailor the question.

Real lesson: Leaders should focus more on asking the right questions rather than giving the right answers. The wrong question, answered accurately, always produces the wrong answer for the situation at hand.

Mantra # 7: Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires

It is dangerous for a leader to become a full-time firefighter. Perhaps you saw the movie “Backdraft,” where Robert De Niro plays an arson investigator? De Niro’s character discovers that the mystery antagonist and arsonist is actually a fireman. In the real world, this is perhaps a rarity. But in business, some leaders love to start fires because the adrenaline rush of coming to the rescue is addictive.

Dwight Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” You clearly can’t plan for every contingency in a fast-paced business, but if your vision and strategy are clear, you can avoid many of the fires. And when the unavoidable occurs, you are ready to take action without hesitation. In the immortal words of Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

While you should avoid becoming a full-time firefighter, as a leader, you cannot run from fires. In fact, you have to be ready to run right into them. You must have courage.

Deciding which color to paint the conference room doesn’t require courage. Giving rah-rah speeches about needing customer service, innovation or ethical behavior doesn’t warrant much courage. Flying around in the company jet to slap backs or attend golf tournaments doesn’t demand courage. As Epicurus said, “You don’t develop courage by being happy in your relationships every day. You develop it by surviving difficult times and challenging adversity.” 

Hiring a senior person who’ll stir things up requires courage. Making a strategic choice to abandon large markets or customer groups necessitates courage. Firing loved team members who don’t have what you need to get to the next level demands courage. Looking at the future and deciding that your business model needs dramatic change requires courage. Risking your job and your position to make a change you believe in takes a lot of courage. Great leaders maintain that courage, along with the seven mantras mentioned above. These pillars help to shape great leaders and maintain crystal-clear focus in otherwise muddied waters.

Real lesson: Real leaders do not run from trouble, nor do they become full-time firefighters. They are courageous and know that they must occasionally fail in order to achieve the greatest amount of success. What are you avoiding right now that needs to be dealt with?

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