We’ve all read the stories about successful and iconic CEOs with volatile personalities—about leaders who use fear to drive performance, like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons, ruling over the Springfield power plant with an iron fist.
A few of these executives are better known for their bad behavior than their business achievements. And while in some cases their antics may be their downfall, many others go unpunished by their boards and shareholders as long as they’re delivering results.
The theatrics of badly behaved business leaders provide a constant stream of headlines for the media, so you couldn’t blame people for thinking that such aggressive behavior is a routine part of being a successful CEO. Sadly, we seldom read about the many mild-mannered but equally––if not more––effective executives. About those who foster commitment, loyalty, and inspiration. Maybe they’re not as newsworthy, but they’re certainly the ones we should be taking notes from.
So what can they teach us? In my 37 year career, I’ve known every kind of executive, from the most outrageous to the most gracious. And I keep coming back to five traits, which, in my view, are shared by the most inspirational and most effective among them:
They use the insights brought by different people from different walks of life to spark discussion and create innovative solutions. They seek to build consensus and commitment, yet they don’t shy away from making the tough decisions.
Forget any notion that inclusion is simply a Human Resource initiative: a survey of executives conducted by Forbes identified workplace diversity as a major driver of internal innovation and business growth.
Their companies place a high value on innovation and often lead their industries as a result. Creative leaders cut through hierarchy and empower even the most junior team members to speak their mind. They create a culture which is energizing to be part of.
Innovative businesses are the most sought after by potential recruits. According to a survey of Millennials by Deloitte, 78% consider how innovative a company is when deciding if they want to work there.
They lead by example and serve as role models for transparency and openness. The companies they lead have a clear and defined societal purpose beyond profit. Their employees feel they’re making a difference in the world.
Ethical leadership is possibly the most important of all the five traits, as it underpins all the others. A leader can spend decades building their career and reputation only to have it destroyed by one scandal or lapse in judgment.
They know long hours don’t necessarily improve productivity and profitability, and in fact can be counterproductive. They embrace the flexibility technology has provided the workplace, despite its ability to keep us connected 24/7. Balanced leaders aren't afraid to unplug for a few hours or even a few days.
I believe it’s really important for a leader to take time to disconnect. For example, I might travel to three countries in a week, but I’ll block out the weekend to spend time with my two sons and my wife. Or an evening for dinner with friends, or an event for the nonprofits I work with.
They remain grounded, stay human, and never forget where they came from. These leaders create a culture where people are recognized and valued for their contribution. They don’t just acknowledge the department heads or top sales people, but also those unassuming people behind the scenes, maybe the ones who make their coffee, or deliver their packages, or record their videos.
Gratitude is something that’s very important to me personally. In the past I’ve found many small but meaningful ways to say thank you, including personal letters and company awards.
Every CEO is different, and none of us are perfect, but the most effective and inspiring fall into one, several, or all of these groupings.
By a wide margin, these leaders will get the least press, even though they far exceed in numbers their peers with volatile personalities. Regardless, through the strong example they’re setting, they’re increasing customer loyalty, attracting the brightest talent to their companies, and inspiring the next generation of leaders.
—Barry Salzberg is the Global CEO of Deloitte.