Captain Courageous

A headhunter on the qualities that mark a brave CEO.


Do you have what it takes to right a sinking ship? That’s what headhunter John Thompson seeks.

  • Who he is: Vice chairman, Heidrick & Struggles
  • Top Execs He’s placed: Bill Nuti, Symbol Technologies Inc.; Eric Schmidt, Google; Ray Lane, Oracle
  • Current Search: Finding a new CEO for Computer Associates

Are companies specifically looking for leaders with courage?

In an indirect way, yes. I look for whether a leader has conviction, intellectual integrity, and emotional integrity. Does a person speak up for what they believe in? Are they able to filter their thinking and thought processes in a way that is reflective of reality? Do they take responsibility for their own actions, their own thoughts, and their own behavior in a way that they understand when they’ve made a mistake and are able to talk about it?

You’ve tapped execs to turn around troubled organizations. Why are conviction and integrity especially important in that context?

You’re asking these people to step up and essentially lay themselves in front of a freight train every day, and hopefully jump out of the way just in time. And they have to convince other people that they should do the same. Without these qualities, they’ll never be able to do it.

How can you gauge if a candidate embodies these qualities?

I start with what I call my “test of humanity.” I’m always looking for trace evidence for how candidates really act versus how they want to position themselves. How does an executive react to and treat people who don’t mean anything to him? How does he react to my receptionist, my admin? Does he ignore them or does he say hello? Is there any warmth or caring in the communication? It gives you some insight into who the real person is, versus the person on the resume.

That gives you human insight. How about professional insight?

People who have low levels of emotional integrity and low courage tend to externalize bad decisions or mistakes to something else. I listen closely for excuses like, “It was the industry,” “Our competitors did this,” or “We couldn’t get the parts we needed.”

I also ask them about business initiatives they introduced to their board or to their boss that got turned down. How did they handle that emotionally? Did they get very depressed, down on it, or did they view it as “I know this is the right thing to do, and I’ve got to find another way to convince them”? There are going to be tough times. If they think in some way the company or the shareholders are being taken advantage of, you want to make sure they can articulate their position and push back.


What’s the primary difference between leaders who are courageous and those who are not?

There’s a very small percentage of CEOs who are visionary, who have the courage to follow their own assessment of a market that’s developing, that’s not there yet, that nobody says is there. Before we recruited Eric Schmidt to Google, we had a finalist in that search who felt the last thing the world needed was another search engine. He didn’t see what Google could be. But Eric did see what was possible, and now Google will probably do another $2 billion in revenue by the end of this year. I look to find people like him.

About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton