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Leading the Way

To commemorate 25 years of the CEO of the Year Award, Chief Executive spoke with past winners about their views on leadership today.

A lot has changed since this magazine's debut in 1977—three recessions, a massive financial crisis, widespread globalization of business and industry and stunning advances in information and communications technologies. Add tothese an enhanced focus on environment al sust ainability, rising public distrust of corporations, more and increasingly onerous regulations and the beginnings of pervasive government al intrusions in business freedoms. And these are just the big headlines.

For the past 25 years, Chief Executive has honored a CEO of the Year, nominated and ultimately selected by his or her peers—current chief executives. CEOs are evaluated in terms of their leadership, vision, sust ained performance, innovativeness, personal character, courage and several other criteria. While this peer-driven process hasn't changed since the award was created in 1986 and celebrated at New York's Metropolit an Club, in contemplating the award's quarter century mark the magazine's st aff pondered how leadership and the perception of leaders has changed over time.

To divine the answer, we reached out to the former honorees. Sadly, three have passed away. Of the remaining 21 CEOs of the Year, 18 were game to tackle the three questions we put before them. The high number of interviews testifies to their concerns over the many stresses confronting modern CEOs, the value they place upon the award as confirmable evidence of capable leadership and also what the tribute meant to them on a personal level. As Citigroup's Sandy Weill, CEO of the Year in 2002, comments, "It was a great honor to be named in the year I was, given the many challenges that existed at that time. The fact that I was selected by my peers made it all the more special."

On the Changing Nature of CEO Leadership...

The job of the CEO essentially is one of "look, listen and act," which has not changed over the years, and will remain even more important in the years ahead.
—Anthony J.F.O’Reilly,
H.J. Heinz, CEO oftheYear,1990

Leadership is about coalescing people around a shared vision and empowering them to make things happen. You make sure you are hiring great people, assembling the right teams, and then the CEO's job is to back those teams and make sure they have the resources they need to do great work.
—William H. Gates III,
Microsoft, CEO of the Year, 1994

When times are tough, it is important to talk to your people, buck them up, show your involvement, encourage their efforts, and express confidence that all will be well. Consistency—sticking to who you are no matter the challenge—is key.
—Bob Ulrich,
Target, CEO of the Year, 2007

Every government is looking for revenue and would be happy to take it off the backs of small business or big business. Either you're part of the solution or part of the problem.
—Jim Skinner,
McDonald’s, CEO of the Year, 2009

My father wrote me a letter sharing his philosophy on how to be a successful leader. His philosophy was simple—treat your employees fairly, work hard, pay close attention to the details, listen to your customers and understand what they want.
—J. Willard Marriott, Jr.,
Marriot, CEO of the Year, 1988

Good CEOs insist on a consistent management process carried out with unrelenting discipline, rather than adopting the "flavor of the month."
—Charles F. Knight,
Emerson Electric, CEO of the Year, 1987

Turbulent times create opportunities for CEOs who can take advantage of the changes to better position their companies.
—Sanford I. Weill,
Citigroup, CEO of the Year, 2002

Companies operate in a more interdependent world that they have much less control and influence over.
—A.G. Lafley,
Procter & Gamble, CEO of the Year, 2006

There is less contact with employees today because of the huge amount of travel and time this entails. A role model can only be experienced face-to-face.
—P. Roy Vagelos,
Merck, CEO of the Year, 1992

The nature of leadership has transitioned to operational excellence from financial management. Big American companies are better managed now by a large margin. The productivity is truly amazing.
—George David,
United Technologies, CEO of the Year, 2005

Most important is building teams and giving them the tools and resources they need to get the job done, then having the confidence to get out of their way and let them succeed.
—Frederick W. Smith,
FedEx, CEO of the Year, 2004

I grew up in a "command and control" management system. If the CEO said, "turn left," employees would turn left. That's a lot of fun, but it also no longer scales in this dynamic, global economy.
—John T. Chambers,
Cisco, CEO of the Year, 2000

Major companies are viewed with suspicion today, resulting in more regulation, too many restraints, and more pressure on the CEO. There seems to be less focus on imagination and growth than there is on making sure you're doing everything you're supposed to do.
—Maurice R. Greenberg,
American International Group, CEO of the Year, 2003

On CEO Job Requirements...

Staying in touch is perhaps the most important contribution I can make as CEO. That's why I started my blog—it allows me to share my thoughts on a wide range of topics, and others the opportunity to share
—J. Willard Marriott, Jr.,
Marriot, CEO ofthe Year,1988

Successful companies have a new responsibility that they innovate on behalf of the poor. Take some of your research and your innovators, and have them think about how they could also help the poor.
—William H. Gates III,
Microsoft, CEO of the Year, 1994

Environmental issues are more profound and such a focus of societal concern. There is just one Earth. Raw materials aren't going to be around forever. CEOs today must think about the long-term implications.
—Herbert D. Kellehe,
Southwest Airlines, CEO of the Year, 1999

CEOs today are much more highly compensated than when I was CEO. This can lead to excessive hubris, feelings of infallibility and ignoring the advice of others. It's hard to interact with someone getting paid 100 times what you're being paid and believe he or she is listening to you.
—P. Roy Vagelos,
Merck, CEO of the Year, 1992

There's a lot of cynicism because some CEOs betrayed the public's trust or bilked people out of their money. People have less tolerance for bad behavior and higher expectations of corporations now. Consumers make decisions about whether they will buy stock or use the products and services of various companies based not just on their financial performance but also on their corporate reputation.
—Frederick W. Smith,
FedEx, CEO of the Year, 2004

When I was CEO, we used to talk about business growing to a worldwide economy and now it is in fact happening. It's a true world market now, especially when you think about the dramatic changes in Asia.
—Charles F. Knight,
Emerson Electric, CEO of the Year, 1987

Turbulent times create opportunities for CEOs who can take advantage of the changes to better position their companies.
—Donald E. Petersen,
Ford, CEO of the Year, 1989

The big change is the need to have a clearer understanding of currency market dynamics since the world is more closely linked by currencies. Currency fluctuations will become more important to all CEOs, no matter what business they're in.
—Jim Skinner,
McDonald’s, CEO of the Year, 2009

There is a far higher level of oversight going on in Corporate America. Everything you do now is in the public domain in no time flat. There is relentless focus on company performance, and doing it right.
—George David,
United Technologies, CEO of the Year, 2005

As someone who opened several foreign markets at AIG, I can say that there are no quick victories—it takes a long time to build relationships to succeed in a foreign market, particularly in Asia.
—Maurice R. Greenberg,
American International Group, CEO of the Year, 2003

In my time, I've learned an important lesson, and that is that the American legal system has two parts—the rule of law, and what is even more important, the spirit of the law. Something that may be strictly legal today may look different four years later.
—Sanford I.Weill,
Citigroup, CEO of the Year, 2002

On CEO Leadership Tomorrow...

More than ever, CEOs will need a truly global view and an understanding of how all of the pieces fit together—differing customer needs, differing economies, different cultural expectations.
—Charles F. Knight,
Emerson Electornics, CEO of the Year, 1987

When I was CEO, we used to talk about business growing to a worldwide economy and now it is in fact happening. It's a true world market now, especially when you think about the dramatic changes in Asia.
—Charles F. Knight,
Emerson Electric, CEO of the Year, 1987

CEOs must have the courage to make decisions for the longterm good of their companies and employees, a challenge because there's more instant analysis. Great CEOs never just opt for short-term success at the expense of long-term— they master the art of striking an appropriate balance between the two.
—Frederick W. Smith,
Fedex, CEO of the Year, 2004

CEOs will need to stay ever closer to governments, which are under financial stress, to oppose their efforts to overtake the "freedom of business" environment.
—Lawrence A. Bossidy,
Allied Signal, CEO of the Year, 1998

You'll still need someone who is optimistic and passionate, who can create a partnering environment, who is not afraid to hire people smarter than himself or herself, and who gets employees and their families really involved in what the company is doing.
—Sanford I. Weill,
Citigoup, CEO of the Year, 2002

Being adaptable and able to quickly understand the implications of change, and then move forward, are key, and not everyone will figure it out.
—Michael Dell,
Dell, CEO of the Year, 2001

About russ banham

Russ Banham (russ@russbanham.com) is a contributing writer to Chief Executive