The 4 behaviors that set the MOST Successful CEOs apart

I was intrigued by an article in the Harvard Business Review on “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart” and I wanted to share a summary with you.   They found that there were four behaviors that proved critical to their performance.  These findings challenged some previously held assumptions that favored charismatic extroverts, immaculate track records and educational pedigrees as key indicators for success.  

This is important for CEOs, CHROs and High Potentials aspiring to be CEOs, to pay close attention to and do some self-reflection and development planning.  I am summarizing the article below.

They found that it is rare to excel in all four behaviors, however, the top CEOs excelled in more than one of them.  I believe they should be working toward excelling in the others to truly maximize performance - begin to actively assess current successors in these areas and put in place robust development plans where they are lacking.  This is where an executive coach can be very valuable to accelerate development, raise awareness and help them actively work towards developing these behaviors. Behavior change takes time, focus and commitment - and not something that is done very successfully on your own - it is about changing habits and routines, stretching and moving out of your comfort zone, take a guide (executive coach) with you and you will get there faster!

The four behaviors they identified were deceptively simple but critical, they are:

  1. Deciding with speed and conviction.  They make decisions earlier, faster and with greater conviction.  In their data, people who were described as ‘decisive’ were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs.  Good CEOs realize that a wrong decision may be better than no decision at all.
  2. Engaging for Impact.  Once they set a course, they get buy-in among their employees and key stakeholders.  A great example from Madeline Bell, CEO of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is “With any big decision, I create a stakeholder map of the key people who need to be on board”.  They are acutely aware of their mood/emotions and how it impacts others - emotionally intelligent.  The highest performing CEOs did not shy away from conflict in the pursuit of business goals and were rated strong in conflict management.  They don’t get mired in total consensus where it is not necessary, they are good at engagement and giving everyone a voice but not a vote.  
  3. Adapting proactively.  CEOs who excel at adapting are 6.7 times more likely to succeed.  They need to be able to deal with situations that are not in the playbook.  They recognize setbacks as an opportunity to reflect, learn and grow - adopting what Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’.  90% of the strong CEO candidates scored high on dealing with setbacks.
  4. Delivering reliably.  The ability to reliably produce results was the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors.  A stunning 94% of the strong CEO candidates they analyzed scored high on reliability consistently - they follow through on their commitments.  They rated highly on organization and planning skills, managed the metrics, established clear accountability and surrounded themselves with strong teams.

As simple as these seem, they are powerful and the right combination is determined by what the organization needs -but the right person at the top is so critical.  I have worked with numerous global leaders and found these to be very consistent with what the organizations saw as critical and the best leaders were working on improving in these areas.  An executive coach can help CEOs and high potentials become aware of blind-spots here, develop and execute plans to grow in these areas.  If you are interested in growing here or growing your leaders here, please reach out to me at



Comments are closed.