In leadership circles there is a lot of talk about how to be a “great” leader. This is only natural, I suppose, as no one wants to be “average.” Leadership is a highly competitive environment, and it’s not enough to just pass. As leaders, we are driven to excel.

What Does a Great Leader Look Like?

The challenge in achieving greatness, as a leader, is that the conventional wisdom of what a great leader looks and acts like: “a tall, white, male that’s highly extroverted, pushy and self-promoting, a risk taker,” is incorrect.

While there are certainly more men in top leadership roles, the number of women in these roles is growing. You only need look through the pictures of the leaders of the Fortune 500 companies and other corporate ranking sites to discover that great leaders come in in all genders, races and backgrounds.

So, what does that tell us about the qualities of great CEOs?

Well, there have been lots of studies on the personality traits great leaders share, but a recent study by Russell Reynolds Associates pinpoints some specific characteristics which are interesting.

Two key characteristics of great CEOs.

The study found great CEOs have ‘an ability to embrace appropriate risks and a bias toward acting and capitalizing on opportunities.’

So, we’re talking about people who are movers and shakers. They don’t spend ages thinking about what to do. They weigh up the consequences of their plans, and if the benefit outweighs the risk, they act.

Supporting characteristics of great CEOs.

The study also found six other characteristics that make great CEOs stand out from the pack. They are:

  • drive and resilience
  • original thinking
  • the ability to visualise the future
  • team building
  • being an active communicator
  • the ability to catalyse others to action

What does all this look like in the workplace?

What does a CEO with all these characteristics look like? From that list you’d expect them to be loud, outspoken and able to whip their teams into a frenzy of action.

The reality may be different.

Great CEOs can also be quiet achievers; people who step up when they need to, and who seem to do it all from behind the scenes. Just don’t mistake their quietness for weakness.

Strong CEOs all share the same characteristics:


Great leaders are future forward in their thinking. They don’t hold onto traditions. They are original thinkers, ready to throw out standard processes and procedures, and embrace change. They are always on the lookout for new ideas. They anticipate the future, and don’t allow themselves of their teams to be held back by the ‘what ifs’.


What’s the difference between a good manager and a great leader? A great leader will never give up. They can pick themselves up if something goes wrong and start looking for different ways to reach their goals. They have an inner drive and motivation to reach the goal they see so clearly. A fail is only temporary, and it doesn’t hurt unless you focus on it. Great CEOs feel the pull of their goals more than the sting of a failure.


Great CEOs know their limitations and are prepared to let others step up when they have the expertise or skills to do what needs to be done. It’s a bit like a game of chess. They know what needs to be done, and they have a talented team to help them get there. Of course, for this to work, the CEO must inspire the team with the desire to help, so there’s a good deal of caring commination going on, too.

Don’t overlook the people skills.

From the study, the overall picture of the great CEO is dynamic, focused and with an internal strength driving them on. But in saying that, don’t overlook the people skill behind the action. Without nurturing the relationships and keeping the lines of communication open, the CEO would be a lone wolf.

Do you have what it takes to be a great CEO? If not, what leadership skills could you work to make the transition to excellence?

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