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June 16, 2017

What Makes A Great CEO?

Photo Credit: Ambro via

 “I never set out to be CEO. I always set out to be a good team member, a good colleague.”

— John Stumpf

What makes someone a great CEO?

Pop culture is rife with images of famous entrepreneurs and leaders like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, and in the tech culture, these CEOs are revered for their ingenuity and dedication to perfection.

However, as a CEO coach and former CEO of a 3,000 percent growth software company, I find that these larger-than-life leadership personas can do more harm than good when people try to emulate these qualities themselves. The true makeup of a great leader comes down to much more than charisma and fierce individuality. The best CEOs are resilient, open to criticism, able to make decisions quickly and willing to listen to other people’s ideas.

A landmark study led by the CEO Genome Project has identified the four key qualities that the world’s best CEOs have in common. Researchers followed 17,000 CEOs for 10 years in order to find and identify the top skills that make a CEO successful. The findings, which were just published in Harvard Business Review, are very informative, and should be required reading for any business executive or ambitious business student out there. (If you want to take the quiz yourself, click here. It just takes five minutes!)

Here is one of the most notable findings: The researchers found that great leaders tend to be introverts.

Sounds strange, right? Introversion is not a quality that we tend to associate with hyper-successful people, especially not in the business world. I think this is because entrepreneurs tend to be outgoing (or must force themselves to be outgoing) when they are trying to get their ideas in front of the right investors and pilot customers. It requires a certain type of personality to be able to endure meeting after meeting with potential investors, and to be willing to put yourself out there and risk embarrassment, not to mention, financial failure.

However, once that initial start-up phase is over, those same qualities could actually do a company a disservice. As the CEO Genome Project findings show, introversion is the secret weapon of many great leaders. Why is this? Because once a company has scaled beyond the start-up stage (typically five to 20 employees), this is when the CEO hits a ceiling and needs to adopt a more scalable leadership style. The CEO needs to develop skills outside of being bold and brash and must be willing to listen to other people’s ideas, to trust the people they hired, to put their ego in the backseat and appreciate the other geniuses that could be sitting in the room with them.

That is why I always tell my clients, “You should not be the smartest guy in the room.” If the CEO is the smartest man or woman in the room, there’s a problem: You need your staff to be just as talented and ingenious as you are, if not more so.

The study also found that successful CEOs are willing to make decisions quickly, even if the options aren’t completely to their liking. This means that they realize action is generally preferable to inaction, and that it is better to take a risk and make themselves vulnerable, rather than to stay stagnant and in self-protection mode. In other words, great CEOs are willing to be wrong. Willing to make mistakes. Willing to be uncomfortable and on the spot. Why? Because they ultimately know that no real growth happens in the comfort zone. So, they make decisions quickly. They take leaps of faith. They trust their guts and they trust their employees.

In fact, in my years as a CEO and now a CEO coach, I have found that the most stifling behavior for a company is a CEO who is so self-critical and scared of losing power that they cling on to what they know rather than move into that space of uncertainty and growth. But as soon as they become willing to relinquish that frightened mentality (which often comes off as angry, critical and even aggressive), they move into a space of creativity and innovation that had hereto been unavailable to them.

What do you think? What qualities do you think the best CEOs possess?


Krister Ungerboeck is a CEO coach and the founder of Courageous Growth, a firm focused on the unique leadership development challenges of midsize growth companies.  He works exclusively with owners, CEOs, future CEOs or 2ICs (Second In Command) to accelerate their business and personal growth. Ungerboeck is a former CEO of a 3,000 percent growth software company, and thanks to his personal background in technology, he brings a unique mix of hands-on experience in a broad range of functional areas, including R&D, sales & marketing, professional services, support, finance and HR. Ungerbeock offers his clients CEO Coaching, mentoring and real-time advisory, as well as strategic workshop planning, executive team building, and critical hire recruiting. You can find him at LinkedIn and Facebook.