CEO Leadership Traits

What are the leadership traits of a successful CEO?

I’ve been fortunate to work with some great leaders, and over the years I’ve identified that they had some common capabilities. Although they had high intelligence and business aptitude, they learned these common capabilities in their career.

My list isn’t inclusive, but it’s prescriptive. Work on these and I guarantee you’ll be a better leader. Here are the leadership traits of the most successful CEOs I’ve worked with:

CEO Leadership Trait No. 1: They’re kind, not nice — they optimize conflict.

Nice people tell you what you want to hear. Kind people tell you what you need to know to do your job correctly, even if that means you’re screwing up!

Nice CEOs sacrifice team performance to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Kind leaders recognize that you can only improve if you know the truth, and they realize that the team’s success is paramount.

Kind leaders don’t minimize conflict; they optimize it! They understand that the truth must be told, and they know how to do it productively and compassionately.

CEO Leadership Trait No. 2: They ask great questions.

Isidor Rabi won the Nobel Prize in physics years ago. In his acceptance speech, he credited his mother for his success. He said that when he was a child, his friends’ mothers would ask their children when returning from school, “Did you give the right answers today?” Yet his mother would ask, “Izzy, did you ask a good question today?”

This brilliant vignette highlights one of the key traits in my most successful CEO clients. They slow down the game and ask the right question, because they know that the right answer to the wrong question is always wrong for that situation. Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.”

CEO Leadership Trait No. 3: They communicate well.

Whether you were a fan of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton (or perhaps both!), you know that they were brilliant communicators. I was blessed to have a father-in law who spoke like Reagan, so I had my own intense case study.

This brilliant vignette highlights one of the key traits in my most successful CEO clients. They slow down the game and ask the right question, because they know that the right answer to the wrong question is always wrong for that situation. Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.”

Specifically, the best CEOs communicate with humility, specificity, passion, humor and consistency.
Do you?

CEO Leadership Trait No. 4: They’re performance-driven.

I was once on a board of directors, and we were in executive session talking about the CEO. Our chairman said something that stuck with me for years, and it wasn’t a compliment. “He does not lead; he presides!” It was spot-on.

Leaders who need to be loved sacrifice performance for affection. They aren’t driven to achieve the measurable results that stakeholders deserve.

Effective CEOs know that satisfying customers, employees and shareholders requires a laserlike focus on performance. Can you have fun? Of course (in fact, you should)! However, your job isn’t to preside; it’s to lead!

CEO Leadership Trait No. 5: They think about the future.

CEOs need to be strategic, but what does that mean? Mostly, it means they think about the future. What will the future business environment look like, and how will they succeed?

The underlying trait is that they’re disciplined. They block out time on their calendar to think about the future, and they have specific questions and actions to do so.

You don’t have to think about creative destruction or how to purposefully cannibalize your business 24 hours a day, but it’s better to put some energy into it before that hungry little startup eats your lunch!

CEO Leadership Trait No. 6: They deeply understand their customers.

I learned this lesson from my wife, who’s an artist. I often accompany her to shows, and when she leaves the booth, I rarely sell anything. I finally realized that I thought I was selling art, but my wife sells joy. She has stories about each piece and clearly articulates the feelings that they were intended to produce. She understands her customers much better than I do.

Most of my best CEO clients spend a lot of time with their top customers. They aren’t selling “product or services”; they’re satisfying a need and want to deeply understand what that need is.

You must be you, but if you want to succeed, you must create a model of success to work toward.