Aye, that is the question. Do you, as the chief executive, want love or respect? Some people want to do both, but the chances of accomplishing either one under those circumstances will be greatly diminished.
David Brooks, writing in the New York Times a while back, revived a series of studies about the characteristics of successful CEOs that shed a lot of light on the modus operandi that executive bring to their jobs.
A study by Kaplan, Klebanor and Sorenson, according to Brooks, relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 CEOs and measured their companies’ performances. They found that strong people skills correlate loosely or, even, not at all with being a good CEO. Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague and a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies.
What mattered, it turned out, were execution and organizational skills. The traits that correlated most peacefully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.
In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as CEOs. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.
“These results are consistent with a lot of work that’s been done over the past few decades,” Brooks said. Jim Collins published a best-selling study called Good to Great. He found that the best CEOs were not the flamboyant visionaries. They were humble, self-effacing, diligent and resolute souls who found one thing they were really good at and did it over and over again.
That same year, Barrick, Mount and Judge surveyed a century’s worth of research into business leadership. They, too, found that extroversion, agreeableness and openness to new experience did not correlate well with CEO success. Instead, what mattered was emotional stability and, most of all, conscientiousness—being dependable, making plans and following through on them.
All this work is a reminder that, while it’s important to be a sensitive, well-rounded person for the sake of your inner fulfillment, the business world doesn’t really care. Your world wants you to fill an organizational role.
The market seems to want CEOs to offer a clear direction for their companies. There’s a tension between being resolute and being flexible. The research suggests it’s more important to be resolute, even at the cost of some flexibility.
What these traits do add up to is a certain ideal personality type. The CEOs that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless, and a bit uni-dimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.
You, of course, can model yourself in any direction you choose. The eventual molding of your style will evolve mainly through trial and error. A little self-directed guidance could certainly help.