CEO traits that led them to top leadership post.

What Does it Take for a CEO to be a Successful Leader?    

It’s hard to pinpoint the particular traits that enable CEOs to become successful leaders. They’re different, like you and me, coming from a variety of backgrounds without a single common denominator.

Nonetheless, a New York Times reporter has found a number of similarities in leadership styles in his interviews of CEOs for a weekly column called Corner Office in the SundayBusiness section.

Ten years and 525 columns later, Adam Bryant wrote his last column in yesterday’s edition and disclosed the lessons he learned about how to be the Big Boss.

Three Recurring Themes

Bryant discussed three themes that run through the interviews.

First, CEOs share a habit of mind that is best described as “applied curiosity.” They tend to question everything. They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better.

Second, CEOs seem to love a challenge. Discomfort is their comfort zone.

Third is how they managed their own careers on their way to the top. Their focus was on doing their current job well, that earned them promotions. They were ambitious, of course, but focused on building a track record of success. People could count on them.

They Can be Trusted

Overriding those three themes, though, Bryant said, “if you were to force me to rank the most important qualities of effective leadership, I would put trustworthiness at the top.

“Do we trust them to do the right thing? Will they be straight with us and not shave corners of truth? Do they own their mistakes; give credit where credit is due; care about their employees as people as opposed to assets? Do they manage down as well as up?”

A close corollary to trust is respect. “If you want to lead others, you’ve got to have their trust, and you can’t have their trust without integrity,” said James Hacket, chief executive of Ford Motor Company, and former CEO of Steelcase.

Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, while acknowledging that it’s important to have the respect of your employees, said, “It’s not how much they respect you that is most important. It’s actually how much you respect them. It’s everything.”

I was heartened to read that Bryant found no difference in how women and men lead.

“… the actual work of leadership? It’s the same, regardless of whether a man or a woman is in charge. You have to set a vision, build cultural guardrails, foster a sense of teamwork, and make tough calls. All of that requires balancing the endless paradoxes of leadership, and doing it in a way that inspires trust,” he wrote.

Employees are Happier

It was enlightening to learn the traits that several hundred CEOs share and heartening to confirm my own experience that trust is at the core of the CEO-employee relationship.

Maybe that’s why recent studies show that employee satisfaction is at its highest level in years. The Conference Board Job Satisfaction survey, released last month, disclosed for the first time since 2005  that job satisfaction surpassed the 50 percent mark, meaning more than half of all US workers are satisfied with their jobs.

The increase in job satisfaction is largely due to the improvement in the labor market in recent years, said the Conference Board.

However, at least for the foreseeable future, job satisfaction is unlikely to reach the levels of two or three decades ago as the US labor market is very different now.

“Some of the structural trends in the US labor market that led to lower job satisfaction in recent decades, such as a shift to outsourcing low-skill jobs, are unlikely to reverse,” said Gad Levanon, Chief Economist, North America, in the release announcing results of the latest annual survey.

Let’s give CEOs credit for the current high level of employee satisfaction. But, when the job market softens, as it always does in a cyclical economy, let’s hope we can continue to count on CEOs to be trustworthy and respect their employees by putting them first, even when investors are clamoring for them to cut staff and expenses.

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  1. Being able to trust my boss has always been the most essential component of a successful working relationship. That and my perception as to whether or not I am working harder than the boss! When I’ve found myself caring more and putting in more hours than the person in charge, I’ve questioned whether or not that was the right job for me.

    Let’s hope we see an increase in reputable leaders all around our country.

    • RoseMary — Interesting perspective. It’s demotivating when you feel the boss isn’t even living up to your standards. You’re right, when that happens it’s probably time to go.

  2. Very interesting. I read through your article twice and the second time I couldn’t help but take a stroll down memory lane thinking about the CEO’s I’ve worked for. Three stand out for very different reasons. One represented the antithesis of everything you describe, was hated by his employees and eventually fired rather unceremoniously. The second was a total nonconformist and really didn’t a rip what most people thought of him, but he was brilliant and ended up rising to the top of the company so I guess not all leaders have to be people “people” in order to succeed. I worked for the third for 10 years and based on the points you outlined above he fit the model of the perfect leader. Most people who know him would likely agree. Thanks for the fascinating read!

    • Marquita — Well I once worked for a CEO who used to throw ash trays and terrified his secretaries so much that no one would work for him. Fortunately, he didn’t last long!

  3. What you mention in your article is correct such as applied curiosity which is essential in order to be a successful leader. However, what is not mentioned is that if you don’t have the personality it takes to lead it’s very difficult to become more than an average leader. It’s been estimated that approximately ten percent of all human beings have the personlaity it takes to lead.

    • Catarina — Agree that it takes a special personality to be a good leader and there aren’t that many great leaders. Just look at all CEOs who ruined their companies before they were ousted.

  4. A successful CEO is not afraid to step our of the box. They are willing to lead and make mistakes along the way and are confident enough to put their hands up.

    They have constant ideas on how to improve organisations, how to work more efficiently.

    They are willing to make cut throat decisions.

    • Phoenicia — Leaders aren’t perfect and are human like you and me — they make mistakes, too, and learn from them.