The Top 10 Personality Traits CEOs Need To Be Effective

It’s no secret that business acumen in all its guises is an essential attribute for successful CEOs. However, there are also several key personality traits that separate effective CEOs from their less-than-effective—and hence, less-than-successful—counterparts.
Experts agree these 10 CEO personality traits stand out
Experts agree these 10 CEO personality traits stand out

What are the best CEO personality traits? It depends on who you ask and there will never be a complete consensus, but most experts agree that these ten traits stand out among others:

1. Learning agility. According to the Korn/Ferry Institute, the educational arm of human resources consultancy Korn Ferry, learning agility is “the willingness and ability to apply lessons learned from past experiences to new and first-time situations and challenges”—or knowing what to do when you don’t really have a clue what to do. CEOs and aspiring CEOs who possess this trait are easily adaptible to changing environments, and insatiably curious. They avoid defaulting to previously effective solutions and problem-solving tactics, instead applying fresh, varied approaches, ideas and solutions to new problems and unanticipated challenges.

2. Knack for building solid relationships. A 10-year longitudinal study of more than 2,700 business executives in leadership positions—conducted by consulting company Navalent and reported in a Harvard Business Review note—found that the ability to form “deep, trusting relationships” is the most “make it or break it” attribute of successful CEOs. The best CEOs, the Review said, develop such connections by “investing heavily in their own emotional and social intelligence, actively solicit feedback about how others experience them, and learn to be vulnerable with their shortcomings to create trust with others.”

3. Realistic optimism. In his book “Better Under Pressure,” executive assessment expert Justin Menkes, Ph.D., noted that leaders who possess this trait are confident, but neither irrational nor delusional about themselves. They pursue “audacious” goals others may perceive as “impossible pipe dreams,” while simultaneously remaining aware of the challenges that confront them and any difficulties they may face on the road ahead.

4. Caring nature. No matter CEOs’ competence, “not caring about your people or the organization’s mission will not get you very far,” according to Forbes. In the corporate world, “caring” means CEOs prioritize the organization above themselves and any personal interests. One way to demonstrate this is to follow the rule that “the troops eat first;” the other, to own one’s company’s failures as much as, or more than, its successes—and being happy to give others credit for the latter.

5. Willingness to be a “host” rather than a “hero.” Most CEOs and other high-ranking executives take a “heroic” approach to leadership, getting things done by “knowing more or working harder than anyone else,” Mark McKergow, Ph.D. and author of “Host: Six New Roles of Engagement for Teams, Organizations, Communities, Movement,” told Amex OPEN Forum, American Express’ online business publication. However, McKergow said, “the smart ones” eventually realize that the role of the leader “is more like a host than a hero” and entails “drawing people together around an issue or challenge, engaging them, and getting results through others.”

6. Flexibility to listen as much—or more than—talk. Just because CEOs are the ultimate decision-makers in most situations pertaining to their companies, doesn’t mean their opinions are the only ones that matter, according to Inc. Employees will be far more productive in environments where the CEO demonstrates a willingness to listen to any and all opinions—and actively solicits them through something “as simple as a suggestion box-style submission process, or as in depth as a series of personal interviews,” Inc. said.

7. Being decisive. No one wants to rush into an important decision, but meandering around can send the wrong message to employees. It’s best to go ahead with a decision before people lose faith a CEO’s leadership. Nick Tasler, the CEO of consultancy Decision Pulse, said to the Harvard Business Review that less-confident leaders are more likely to delay decisions before settling on a “compromised Frankenstein solution” that leaves staff moderately enthused and ultimately fosters mediocrity.

8. Adapting situational leadership styles when appropriate. While most leaders probably take the view that their leadership style is fairly fixed, this isn’t the best strategy, says Emily Bermes, CEO of Emily Bermes and Associates, a human capital consulting firm. “Strong leaders know that their leadership style must be situational – that they must lead in a way that meets the needs of the organization and its people in order to expedite business results,” she writes to Chief Executive.

9. Know your blind spots. According to Carter Cast, former CEO of, the top reason a leader’s career goes off track is that they fail to recognize personal blind spots. This  is “being unaware of a debilitating weakness in your interpersonal behavior, and being unwilling, when confronted with evidence, to make adjustments.”

Stuart Kaplan, the director of leadership recruiting at Google, agreed with Cast. He said, “As you progress in your career, your relationship with others is more important than your knowledge of the relationship to the data. You have to suppress your ego, let go of having the answer and embrace the relational world. [Leadership] becomes less about having competencies and more about engendering trust.” Cast recommends CEOs take a 360-degree feedback review. This confidential, anonymous feedback comes from the people CEOs work with, centering specifically on leadership, communication, team development, peer group alignment and interpersonal skills.

10. Look for expert opinions. The best leaders have trust in their teams to make the right decisions, experts say. According to Ram Charan, a preeminent adviser to CEOs and boards, great leaders “take in a lot of information from many sources and then crystallize a point of view. They sort and sift the information and select the handful of factors that matter most—usually no more than six—from the myriad possibilities.” According to Cindy Wahler, Ph.D., C.Psych., a leadership consultant specializing in succession planning and talent management, every CEO needs to have at least one trusted adviser.

“Having a trusted advisor eliminates the risks associated with working in isolation or at warp speed. To accept the advice of your advisor, however, you must have a sense of humility. You must accept that you could be wrong, you might require course correction or you might even have to start all over again,” she writes.


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