Five leadership qualities from famous CEOs

Building a business from the ground up is never easy. It takes courage, the ability to adapt, and a strong team to get things off the ground, and that’s only the beginning.

Whether your company is still in the startup stage or it’s already become a raging success, being a good leader is what matters most in the long run. You’re the person everyone else looks up to. You’re the one who sets the company’s core values and mission. Essentially, you are the face of the brand, so what sort of face are you putting out there for the world to see?

To better appreciate a founder’s place in a company, large or small, take a cue from these business leadership qualities exhibited by famous CEOs.

Relentless innovation

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has taken innovation to a new level. Despite both companies facing bankruptcy in 2008, Musk persevered and focused on rebuilding both ventures, and his efforts paid off.

In fact, Musk has said, “If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.” His drive toward relentless innovation has resulted in Tesla earning more gross profit margins than Ford and General Motors, which is quite a feat. SpaceX has also been chosen by NASA to develop next-gen systems for use on the International Space Station. Talk about a success story!


Every good leader needs to be adaptable. Consider the story of Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe Systems. Narayen didn’t see a future in physical software discs, so he changed his company’s entire model to the subscription-based Adobe Creative Suite. There was a precedent for this, as Netflix quickly adapted its disc-only rental services to include online streaming.

Changing your company’s entire distribution model can be scary, especially if you’re one of the first to take on such an innovative change in your industry, but the payoff can be well worth it. In fact, adaptability can help keep your company afloat during trying economic times.


Just because your business venture fails doesn’t mean your ideas are a failure. Consider Alan Mulally, the former CEO and president of Ford Motor Company. He is responsible for one of the most impressive business turnarounds in history. With his guidance, Ford was able to avoid bankruptcy and billions of dollars in losses, and he did all this without government bailouts.

Mulally chalks up his success to focusing on accountability and teamwork within the company. He rebuilt Ford’s company culture in order to drive results and focus on positive, effective leadership in business. Doing so allowed his team to work together toward a single vision.


Phillip Krim, CEO of the e-commerce company Casper, has revolutionized how we purchase mattresses. He reimagined the process, going from brick-and-mortar mattress stores to online shops and home delivery, making it easier than ever to buy a new bed.

Similar companies have cropped up recently, which has essentially changed an entire industry as we know it. Krim has proven that success isn’t always reserved for high-tech industries, but even seemingly mundane products can be reimagined—or at least repackaged and delivered.


As a CEO, you must have a sense of focus. GoPro’s CEO Nick Woodman discovered the problem of not being able to take photographs or videos while surfing, and he made finding a solution to that problem his main focus. After several months, he developed a prototype and GoPro was born. Recently, Woodman has refocused his efforts on building a bigger, better platform for GoPro users.

How are you staying focused in your industry? If you’re bogged down with everyday details of the business, it may be time to delegate and focus on what drove you to open the business in the first place.

Effective delegation

Sometimes, having a hands-off approach to leadership is more important. Consider Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. Those that have worked with Hsieh have noted his effective delegation. In fact, Jamie Naughton, a Zappos colleague, stated that Hsieh “likes to say that he is more of an architect; he designs the big vision and then gets out of the way so that everyone can make the things happen.”

Hsieh’s hands-off leadership style has been emulated in other companies, including the private aviation company JetSuite. In fact, CEO Alex Wilcox credits Hsieh’s leadership style as an influence on JetSuite’s in-flight Wi-Fi implementation.

When you step back and let qualified people take over and work together for the greater good, some amazing things can happen.

A clear vision

It’s important to know where you see your company going in five, 10, or even 100 years. Phil Libin, CEO of Evernote, originally never wanted to work at a company with more than 50 employees. When Evernote got off the ground, his long-term vision shifted to a 20,000-person company, although the company currently has only a couple of hundred employees. Libin’s overreaching vision has been to maintain a startup culture at Evernote, regardless of how big the company becomes.

Libin even describes his vision as the “100-year startup.” It’s a company culture that cultivates the values and mission of a startup, helping employees feel like they’re working for one instead of a large corporation. Libin has even implemented “officer training” at Evernote, which gives employees the chance to attend meetings in unrelated departments, giving them a better look at the bigger picture.


Sheila Johnson, co-founder of the BET cable network, has said, “above all else, I hang my hat on character.” She’s been quoted as saying that she wants each one of her employees to look at her with respect and dignity. She wants to be a CEO they’re proud to work for.

In order to create this type of environment, Johnson credits “unfailing dedication” in putting the greater good before all else. Developing a strong, approachable character as a CEO takes responsibility, humility, and compromise. It’s being accountable for your actions, even when you’ve failed.

Constructive criticism

Being an effective CEO is just as much about accepting constructive criticism as it is giving it. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner explains the importance of taking “a minute to celebrate success or reflect on failure, but then move on.” He’s known for taking the time to acknowledge even small accomplishments by employees, and ends meeting by asking how he personally could have done better.

This ability to deal empathetically with employees and colleagues garners much respect, which has helped LinkedIn consistently rank as one of the best places to work.

How can I embody leadership qualities of famous CEOs?

Looking up to the leaders you admire most is a good start when you’re developing your leadership qualities in business and your own company culture, but don’t forget to draw from your own strengths.

Effective leaders are known for setting goals, delegating responsibilities, communicating openly, and making time for employees. They focus on lasting solutions, recognize achievements at every level, and never take the job too seriously.

If you’re trying to emulate famous CEOs, try making your company a fun place to work. Embrace the open-office concept to encourage teamwork and transparent communication between colleagues. Rather than close yourself off from employees, maintain a work space with them to make yourself more approachable.

While you may love the way Elon Musk or Nick Woodman conduct business, you’re not them. You have your own unique leadership personality that has its own strengths, so focus on developing it.

Ask yourself how you handle stressful situations. Do you ask others for their opinions? Do you trust your team? Most leadership personalities boil down to five main types:

  • Autocratic – Managers make decisions alone without input and have total authority over employees. Few ever challenge the decisions of autocratic leaders.
  • Laissez-faire – Leaders fail to provide direct supervision and regular feedback to employees, which can hinder the production of those needing direction.
  • Transactional – Managers reward or punish employees based on performance. They set goals and employees agree to them.
  • Transformational – Leaders communicate openly to meet goals and motivate employees to enhance productivity. They focus on the bigger picture and delegate tasks as needed.
  • Participative – This more democratic leadership style values team input, but final decisions rest with the leader. Participative leadership boosts morale because employees feel as if their opinions matter.

The best leaders exhibit the best qualities from every leadership style. When you draw from their own strengths and create a fun, engaging work culture, you’re well on your way to being an effective leader.

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