12 leadership qualities of great CEOs

To be a great leader, it’s important to understand yourself and learn from the success of others

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When developing your leadership style, it’s important to look at the qualities that make other leaders successful. But it’s also key to look within yourself to understand how you can bring out the best in those who look to you for direction and inspiration. The best leaders know themselves and what they bring to the table. They know what they need from other people and how to get everyone to move in the same direction.

Some leaders do so with hands-on energy and fervor, others with gentle encouragement. Once you understand yourself, you can explore what qualities make other leaders successful and use that to shape your own personal style. 

What is leadership?

Leadership is the quality that allows someone to influence and guide others. It’s more than simply telling people what to do. In fact, most leaders believe that if they have to tell their team what to do at every step, they’ve already failed. 

Leadership styles generally fall into one of five common categories

1. Authoritarian leadership (autocratic): Managers make decisions alone without input and have total authority over employees. Few ever challenge the decisions of autocratic leaders.

2. Participative leadership (democratic): 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.

3. Delegative leadership (laissez-faire): Leaders prefer not to provide direct supervision and regular feedback, leaving day-to-day decisions to employees.

4. Transactional leadership (managerial): Managers reward or penalize employees based on performance. They set goals, and employees agree to them.

5. Transformational leadership (visionary): Leaders communicate openly to meet goals and motivate employees to enhance productivity. They focus on the bigger picture and delegate tasks as needed.

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

The importance of being a great leader

Great leadership is critical to the success of your organization. Whether you’re leading a company with 1,000 employees or leading a project with two other people, an ability to successfully guide and influence others is critical. 

You’ve been tapped to lead because you have the skills and vision necessary to achieve something great. Even if you aren’t always sure about the path forward, your enthusiasm and vision will keep the people you’re leading focused on the task at hand as well as the greater vision. You are the guard against chaos and inaction. 

To better understand your own leadership style, it’s important to look at the ways in which other leaders have driven success. Here are 12 leadership qualities of successful CEOs to inspire you.

Examples of great leadership qualities exhibited by famous CEOs

Relentless innovation

In the past few decades, General Motors wasn’t seen as an innovative company—until Mary Barra became CEO of the automaker in 2014. Under Barra’s leadership, the company once known as just another automaker churning out inefficient gas-guzzlers has shifted its priorities to a greener future. In 2017, the company released the first electric car with a range of over 200 miles priced below $40,000, making the technology more accessible. They’ve also committed to producing 30 new global electric vehicles by 2025.

“Climate change is real, and we want to be part of the solution by putting everyone in an electric vehicle,” says Barra. While other companies get more attention in the electric vehicle industry, Barra’s relentless push for innovation at GM has a real chance of putting the average consumer behind the wheel of an electric vehicle.


Every good leader needs to be flexible. When Shantanu Narayen, CEO of Adobe Systems, realized there was no future in physical software discs, he changed his company’s entire model to the subscription-based Adobe Creative Suite.

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. Alan Mulally, the former CEO and president of Ford Motor Company, is responsible for one of the most impressive business turnarounds in history after the company nearly collapsed during the great recession. Under Mulally’s guidance, Ford was able to avoid bankruptcy and billions of dollars in losses, and he did all this without government bailouts.

Mulally has chalked up his success to focusing on accountability and teamwork within the company. He rebuilt Ford by realistically examining the dire situation the company found itself in and doubling down on the core products that were keeping the company afloat. Doing so allowed his team to work together toward a single vision and kept the company from requiring intervention to remain in business.


Philip Krim, the former CEO of the e-commerce company Casper, has revolutionized how we purchase mattresses. He reimagined the process, eliminating the brick-and-mortar mattress store experience and bringing it online, making it easier than ever to buy a new bed. Casper did this by overcoming the outdated “try before you buy” model of mattress sales, offering high-quality products and generous and flexible return policies.

Similar companies have cropped up recently, essentially changing an entire industry as we know it. Krim has proven that seemingly mundane products can be reimagined—or at least repackaged and delivered.


As a CEO, you must have a sense of focus. Nick Woodman wanted to take photographs or videos while surfing, and finding a solution to that problem became his main focus. After several months he developed a prototype, and GoPro was born. Recently, Woodman, the company’s CEO, 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 start a business in the first place.

Effective delegation

Sometimes, a hands-off approach to leadership is necessary. People who’ve worked with Tony Hsieh, the former CEO of Zappos, have noted his effective delegation. Jamie Naughton, a Zappos colleague, has said 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 everyone can make the things happen.”

A clear vision

It’s important to know where you see your company going in five, 10, even 100 years. Phil Libin, former CEO of Evernote, never planned to work at a company with more than 50 employees. But once Evernote got off the ground, Libin’s long-term vision shifted to a 20,000-person company—even though the company currently has only a couple hundred employees. 

Despite taking the long view, Libin’s overreaching vision has been to maintain a startup culture at Evernote, regardless of how big the company becomes. He describes it as the “100-year startup”: a company culture that cultivates the values and mission of a startup, no matter how big the company actually grows. 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, cofounder 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.

Developing a strong, approachable character as a CEO takes responsibility, humility, and compromise. Johnson’s character includes “unfailing dedication” to putting the greater good before all else. 

Constructive criticism

Being an effective CEO is just as much about accepting constructive criticism as it is about 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 meetings by asking how he personally could have done better.

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

Decision-making skills

Leadership is nothing without the ability to effectively make decisions. In a 2021 interview, Sonia Syngal, the CEO of Gap Inc., shared that it’s important when making decisions to have a clear north star and to fully understand why the organization exists. Once that larger picture is understood, you have a much greater ability to make both large and small decisions. 

A strong voice

Unfortunately, women frequently deal with bias and gender discrimination in the workplace, even those who are in leadership positions. Rosalind Brewer, the CEO of Walgreens, has shared her experiences meeting other CEOs for the first time who didn’t believe she was the leader of her organization. 

Brewer’s advice for women dealing with similar situations is to stay steadfast and know that your voice matters. In a 2020 interview, she acknowledged this can be tough when mistakes happen, but she says, “First of all, admit that you made the mistake. But keep using your voice.” 


While most know that it’s critical for a leader to be someone an organization can rely on for vision and guidance, it might not always be obvious that a leader also has to represent the reliability of their organization to the outside world. Julie Sweet, the CEO of consulting firm Accenture, a company with 469,000 employees, exemplifies this reliability. 

Accenture’s reliability is key to maintaining client loyalty, and it’s clear that Sweet knows it. In a 2019 interview with The New York Times, she shared the key to reliable consulting. “Clients constantly are saying to me, ‘The most important thing you can do is to tell me what I need to hear, not what I want to hear,’” she said.

How can I embody the 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. You have your own unique leadership personality, so focus on developing it.

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.

Encourage teamwork and transparent communication between colleagues. Rather than close yourself off from employees, maintain a workspace with them to make yourself more approachable.

Are you born with leadership qualities or can you learn them?

If there’s one common lesson that can be learned by examining the careers and backgrounds of famous CEOs, it’s that no two leaders are the same. There are as many types of leaders as there are types of people in the world. But what these leaders share is that they have all learned to harness their unique talents and use them to inspire others.  

Part of the self-reflection that’s critical in developing your leadership skills is examining whether you actually want to lead. Many people find great satisfaction in doing their own thing or following the lead of others. A lot of messaging tells us that we need to strive to be on top. But true satisfaction doesn’t always come from being the person in charge. Examine what you enjoy doing and what gives you energy. Do you feel energized having people look to you for answers, or do you find that responsibility stressful? The answer to that question will help you know if leadership is right for you.

Leadership dos and don’ts

You may not always do the right thing, and you won’t always know the answer. But keeping a strong grasp on what your organization is all about and always advocating for your team’s best interests are two touchstones that will keep you centered. Your team relies on you. Here are a few dos and don’ts that can help keep you on course:


  • Listen to your team
  • Lead by example
  • Stay open
  • Delegate
  • Cultivate talent


  • Set impossible goals
  • Ignore how your team feels
  • Lie to your team
  • Lead by fear
  • Blame mistakes on others

It’s not always easy being a leader, but inspiring others to do their best work and realize their potential is a rewarding experience. Honing your unique leadership style is a process of understanding yourself and examining the qualities that make other leaders successful. 

Bradley Little is a writer and content creator based in New York City.

Patrick Reinhart is the VP of Customer Success at Conductor, Inc., a technology company and partner for customer-first marketing.

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