The 'best' leaders share these 3 personality traits

'The worst thing new CEOs can do is 'sit on their hands''

When hiring a new top administrator, organizations should be on the lookout for certain personality traits that separate the "best" from those who are just "average," Dean Stamoulis writes for Harvard Business Review

Stamoulis, who leads the Russell Reynolds Associates' Center for Leadership Insight, and his team compared the psychometric profiles of 700 CEOs to the profiles of 9,000 non-CEO executives to identify what separates chief executives from other members of the C-suite.

They found that CEOs differ from other executives across several personality attributes, but "two traits in particular stand out: an ability to embrace appropriate risks and a bias toward acting and capitalizing on opportunities."

Those two traits are the "essence" of the CEO, Stamoulis says. In addition, he says that compared with other senior leaders, CEOs are statistically more likely to have these traits:

  • Active communication;
  • Drive and resilience;
  • Original thinking;
  • Team building;
  • The ability to catalyze others to action; and
  • The ability to visualize the future.

Stamoulis' team then compared the personality profiles of CEOs whose companies had a 5% compound annual growth rate during their tenure with other CEOs.

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According to Stamoulis, the CEOs whose companies had the best financial performance tended to have three things in common:

  1. They have a greater sense of purpose and mission, coupled with urgency and passion. "The worst thing new CEOs can do is 'sit on their hands,'" Stamoulis says. He adds that while CEOs should not be overly impulsive, the best CEOs stood out for their ability to move boldly and quickly on meaningful organizational changes.
  2. They value substance and cutting away to the heart of the issue. The best CEOs have the ability to "separate the signal from the noise," Stamoulis writes. They can spot the most significant opportunities and challenges facing their organization and prioritize them accordingly. 
  3.  They focus more on the organization and employees than themselves. The best CEOs tend to be modest, bucking the stereotype of the self-promoting executive, Stamoulis writes. Instead of pretending they have all the answers, they "know what they don't know" and will work to learn as much as possible to fill in those knowledge gaps, Stamoulis says.

"When a board wants to increase their odds of hiring a successful leader, it should interview and assess candidates for intensity and impatience, find those who focus on core issues, and search for a leader with the ability to have a point of view while still being open-minded and recognizing the power of the organization around him or her," Stamoulis concludes (Stamoulis, Harvard Business Review, 11/15). 

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