What sets a successful CEO apart from others?

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Leadership is an art. It can’t be taught, but it can be learned. A successful CEO must be able to manage a diverse group of individuals with unique talents, skills, and abilities; but what really sets them apart is certain behaviors that can be critical to their performance.


The role and demands of CEOs have evolved in ways that very few would have imagined a few years ago, including the skills they need to succeed. CEOs have gone from being leaders who run a company to being the people who must also promote the company’s purpose and that requires more influence-building, team-building, and people-related skills.


Sometimes, what makes candidates look good to boards has little connection to what makes them succeed in the role. For example, high confidence more than doubles a candidate’s chances of being chosen as CEO but provides no advantage in performance on the job.

In fact, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors. That’s why some of the best-performing CEOs were not the obvious choices.


Research shows that some of the most successful CEOs were those promoted from a few levels down and the least were CEOs who came from the CFO function. While CFOs knew how to turn a profit, they are not always strong at driving top-line growth.

These studies do not discount the value of leading the finance function but rather encourage supplementing it with other responsibilities and C-suite roles. For example, a chief marketing officer or chief customer officer can be essential for running consumer-facing companies.


Successful CEOs must be able to manage a diverse group of individuals, skills, and abilities. Certain behaviors have also been proven to be critical to their performance.


  • Being decisive

This behavior can inspire team members to trust their own judgment on operational decisions. Leaders need to be able to make decisions earlier, faster, and with greater conviction.

Those who struggle the most with decisiveness can take too long to make choices or set clear priorities—and their teams pay a high price as they grow frustrated or become overcautious themselves.

To that end, successful CEOs also need to know when not to decide and be able to pause briefly to consider whether a decision should be made lower down in the organization.


  • Delivering reliably

Reliable CEOs are twice as likely to be picked for the role and 15 times more likely to succeed in it. Boards and investors love a steady hand, and employees trust predictable leaders.

A key practice is setting realistic expectations upfront.


  • Strong engagement with the employees and other stakeholders

CEOs who are aware of how their moods and body language can affect the way they communicate do not invest their energy in being liked or protecting their teams from painful decisions.

Instead, they gain the support of their colleagues by instilling confidence that they will lead the team to success, even if that means making uncomfortable or unpopular moves.


  • Adjust to a rapidly changing environment

CEOs who excel at adapting are more likely to succeed. And that’s because they will need to deal with situations that are not in the playbook.

Furthermore, adaptable CEOs also recognize that setbacks are an integral part of changing course and treat their mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.



Leading an organization is a complex job that demands all kinds of skills. The behaviors listed above are by no means exhaustive. There is no perfect mix that works for every CEO position. The industry and the company context determine which behaviors and skills are most important in any situation.


What’s important is to seek out the feedback and advice you need to develop all the critical qualities of a CEO.


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