Lessons from 500 CEOs: Do You Have What It Takes to be a Leader?

For the last decade Adam Bryant’s “Corner Office” column has delivered practical insights on leadership from interviews with more than 500 CEOs in a wide variety of organizations. Sadly, the column ended its run in The New York Times recently with a reflective piece on Bryant’s most memorable insights about leadership.

Here are four practical takeaways from his conversations with 525 top executives.


3 Qualities More Likely to Get You the Top Job

Bryant says there are no clear patterns of those who end up in the CEO’s office, but he sees three consistent themes among those who made it.

  • Applied Curiosity – “They tend to question everything,” says Bryant. “They want to know how things work, and wonder how they can be made to work better. They’re curious about people and their back stories.” Are you comfortable continually challenging the status quo?
  • Love Challenges – “Discomfort is their comfort zone,” he says simply. As a rule, to be effective CEOs are comfortable pursuing problems and opportunities full of ambiguity, uncertainty and risk.
  • Focus on Doing Your Current Job Well – Leaders who end up as CEOs, aren’t as concerned with the job they want as with the job they’re doing. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have career goals and let people know about them. And you’ve always got to pay attention to organizational politics. But chief executives learn that if you focus on building a track record of success people will keep betting on you, Bryant observes.


Leadership Means Managing Paradoxes

Instead of looking for a single secret to good leadership, recognize that the key is continually managing contradictions. It’s more useful to “understand leadership as a series of paradoxes,” says the Corner Office maven. That’s because opposing forces or traits are almost always both essential.

For example, a good leader needs humility to recognize what they don’t know. At the same time, they need the confidence to make decisions despite considerable ambiguity. Leaders must continually create a sense of urgency, but also be patient enough to get buy in from their colleagues. It’s more useful to think of your values in pairs and to recognize there is a natural tension or balance between them. The key is learning to tolerate and work with those contradictory needs.


Get Smarter About Your Job Interview Questions

Obviously, a key to great leadership is hiring effectively. One of the terrific features of Bryant’s “Corner Office” columns was his endless curiosity about the questions CEOs use in evaluating job candidates.

Most applicants have become quite skilled at answering standard questions about their weaknesses and strengths. So chief executives have to be more creative in questioning candidates. One CEO likes to ask, “Are you smart, or do you work hard?” This executive explained, “You want hard workers. You’d be surprised how many people tell me, ‘I don’t need to work hard. I’m smart.’ Really? Humility is important.”

One question Bryant uncovered that’s particularly powerful is “What are the qualities you like least and most in your parents?” This question has two benefits.

First, it quickly reveals whether applicants will reflect and talk openly about themselves. Are they authentic? Second, it’s a pretty good predictor of behavior because, as Bryant observes, “people often adopt the qualities of their parents that they like, and work hard to do the opposite or what they don’t like.” How would you answer this question?


Men & Women Don’t Lead Differently!

Bryant’s most provocative conclusion from his conversations with 500-plus CEOs is that generalizations about women leading differently than men don’t hold up. Of course, he notes, women face much greater challenges in moving into executive ranks. And that is an issue that must be continually addressed, he says.

But Bryant found that questions of leadership style are much more likely to be determined by personality and family traits, such as whether a leader is an introvert or extrovert, more creative or analytical, and the type of family they grew up in.

In the end, he concludes, we need to let go of the idea that men and women lead differently. The work of leading others is the same, regardless of gender. He says:

“You have to set a vision, build cultural guardrails, foster a sense of teamwork and make tough calls. All of that requires balancing the endless paradoxes of leadership, and doing it in a way that inspires trust.”

That’s a great summary from a decade of reflecting on what it means to be a chief executive. Thanks, Adam.

Contact me if you want to explore more ways to accelerate leadership development in your organization.