Four Key Leadership Traits, According to the CEO Genome Project

A decade’s worth of research went into the CEO Genome Project, an effort to identify the characteristics that define high-performing chief executives. Here's what they found.

You might think that great leaders have something special in their DNA. But according to the researchers behind the CEO Genome Project, the key to effective leadership is less about how they’re wired and more about what they do.

Drawing on a deep well of data from their leadership consulting firm, ghSMART,  Kim Rosenkoetter Powell and Elena Lytkina Botelho set out to learn what differentiates high-performing CEOs (those who meet or exceed expectations of board members and investors) from other, less successful leaders.

“Our findings challenged many widely held assumptions,” Powell and Botelho (along with ghSMART principals Stephen Kincaid and Dina Wang), wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article summarizing the research. They noted, for example, that introverted CEOs are slightly more likely to surpass expectations than extroverts and that educational background is not strong a predictor of success.

So what do the most effective CEOs have in common?

“Our most important discovery was that successful chief executives tend to demonstrate four specific behaviors that prove critical to their performance,” the researchers wrote on HBR. “We also found that when boards focus on those behaviors in their selection and development processes, they significantly increase their chances of hiring the right CEO.”

According to the study, these are the four behaviors of successful leaders:

  1. Decisions made with speed and conviction. Even if the decision is wrong, a key sign of a strong leader is someone who is willing to make a decision in the first place. “In our data, people who were described as ‘decisive’ were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs,” the report states.
  2. A focus on engagement. Effective CEOs don’t simply make decisions. They get stakeholders to buy into their ideas and decisions, which often means that they’re effective planners. “CEOs who excel at bringing others along plan and execute disciplined communications and influencing strategies,” the report says—adding that those who do are 75 percent more successful in their roles.
  3. A willingness to adapt. Rather than simply holding on to old beliefs, successful leaders think about the long term, learn from setbacks, and work to understand opportunities. “Highly adaptable CEOs regularly plug into broad information flows: They scan wide networks and diverse sources of data, finding relevance in information that may at first seem unrelated to their businesses,” the report continues. “As a result, they sense change earlier and make strategic moves to take advantage of it.”
  4. A tendency toward reliability. Of course, none of these other factors matters without consistency. “Boards and investors love a steady hand, and employees trust predictable leaders,” the report states.

In discussing the project’s methodical approach to researching leadership, Botelho noted in recent comments to Knowledge @ Wharton that “while leadership overall is a really big topic, there are a couple of big pivot points. If you can get those decisions right, a lot of things flow from that, which is how we got to the CEO Genome Project.”

The full results of the project will be featured in The CEO Next Door, a book by Botelho and her colleagues expected to be released next year.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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