Five common characteristics of CEOs

June 1, 2011

What does it take to lead an organization? Adam Bryant, New York Times “Corner Office” columnist and author of the new book, “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” has identified five qualities he says many CEOs share and look for in the people they hire. Developed through attitude, habit and discipline, these qualities will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress, Bryant says.

Passionate curiosity. In public, CEOs are expected to project confidence and authority, but behind closed doors “They share stories about failures and doubts and mistakes,” Bryant writes for the Times. “They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people’s stories….” This relentless questioning leads entrepreneurs to spot new opportunities.

Battle-hardened confidence. Some people embrace adversity and have a track record of overcoming it. They have what Bryant calls “battle-hardened confidence” — a positive attitude mixed with a sense of purpose and determination. Many chief executives interview job candidates about how they have dealt with failure in the past. Does the candidate take ownership of challenges, or look for excuses?

Team smarts. More than just being team players, the most effective executives understand how teams work and how to get the most out of them. “Team smarts” refers to what Bryant calls “the ability to recognize the players the team needs and how to bring them together around a common goal.”

A simple mind-set. In presentations, senior executives want you to get to the point and make it simple — but few people deliver that simplicity, Bryant writes. In the Internet era, where information is easily accessible, a greater premium is placed on the ability to synthesize, to connect dots in new ways and to ask simple, smart questions that lead to untapped opportunities.

Fearlessness. Another common trait in successful CEOs is not being afraid of situations where there’s no road map or compass. Beyond risk taking, “One of the things that I characterize as fearlessness is seeing an opportunity, even though things are not broken,” said Ursula M. Burns, CEO of Xerox. “Someone will say: ‘Things are good, but I’m going to destabilize them because they can be much better and should be much better.”  — Greg Beaubien

Greg Beaubien

Greg Beaubien is a frequent contributor to PRSA’s publications.


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