What Makes an Exceptional CEO

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Reams have been written about what makes for a special or exceptional CEO. The fact that all these articles, business school courses and debates later – we still have very few exceptional CEOs, says none of us has found the “formula”.

Which is precisely the conundrum. There is no formula or recipe for “the” ideal CEO. If there were, business schools would be churning them out in droves, which they’re not.

Sure you can say they need to have charisma, be strong leaders, be a people’s person and the like. But I could give you examples where they’ve been none of these things and yet still a successful CEO.

From observation, if there’s one characteristic I believe sh/e cannot be successful without, it’s going to be creativity. The kind of creativity that manifests in adaptability, flexibility, the ability to find (here it comes) a way in the midst of utter chaos.

Wolfgang Grulke’s book – Lessons in Radical Innovation – speaks of the need to function comfortably inside of chaos. Chaos is the nature of nature, the world and indeed the business environment of the global village in which we live. Predictability is long and forever gone. So the CEO must be sh/e who is able to take a helicopter view of a situation, make a judgement call, lead (from whatever position) and be prepared to live with the consequences. In order to do this, the person will need to have conquered the fear of taking risks. This means sh/e will have risen above the fear of failure, which underpins the risk aversion encountered in many non-entrepreneurial CEOs. This person will have a canny gut and they’ll listen to what it says. Their intuition will allow them to make an unpredictable 180-degree opposite call in a situation and be unfazed by the potential for ridicule.

The New Economy or New World Order CEO will be a distinctive, idiosyncratic leader, with a sense of spirituality underpinning her or his functioning. Sh/e will have a sense of being a player in a grand production, whilst not necessarily being the producer. They will still enjoy the quality of curiosity and the child in that person will be alive and well. They’ll maintain a sense of the ridiculous and be prepared to laugh heartily at themselves. Their fulfilment and satisfaction will come from achievement of the objective, using the varied skills of many players – and not just from status or positional power. All of this means sh/e will have high emotional intelligence, or self-understanding. As a wise Indian Swami once said to me, “If you understand the nature of one wave in the ocean, you understand the nature of the ocean.” Because this person self-understands, sh/e will ‘other-understand’.

The exceptional CEO may not look, or even sound, like the stereotypical head honcho or honchette. In the tradition of that delicious ornithological example, “Lessons From Geese”, they may be the ‘lead’ goose, yet honk encouragement from another position in the flight formation. This marks them as a mature person, worthy to lead. They will be the intellectual pioneers, revelling in drawing others to their height and beyond.

They will never have to demand respect. Like Mohandas Gandhi, Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and too few others, they will automatically command it. Our crusty old regimental colonel, addressing us as candidate officers, said, “A true officer will be recognisable even without his uniform.” What he was implying was that character, an internal sense of self-worth and appropriate demeanour, would project itself regardless of dress or circumstances.

Character – a set of life-script principled behaviours – although in short supply at the top in corporations today, is the hallmark of a good CEO. “Corporate governance” has become a mantra without many adherents. But as former American Ambassador to South Africa, James Joseph said, “People who strive to live morally, are now insisting that their institutions and leaders do the same.” A twenty first century CEO will be s/he who lives ethics and morality. Who displays a genuine commitment to the triple bottom lines of fiscal viability, corporate social investment and environmental sensitivity. They’ll be living in their own lives what they live in the corporate. There won’t be one set of rules for the office and another for home.

To quote a time-proven neurolinguistics adage: When the chameleon stood on the branch he turned brown. When on the leaf, green. But he died when trying to walk across a tartan rug. Today’s enlightened CEO doesn’t try to adapt to walking on tartan rugs. Integrity is more important.

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Clive is a Change Architect and Strategist. http://www.imbizo.com

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