No longer calm seas for leaders: leaders must possess an unusual set of traits that often run counter to human behavior. These attributes are catalysts for the mastery displayed by the world’s best CEOs — they add up to a new definition of leadership.
No matter how successful or seemingly secure any business appears, there are no longer periods of calm seas for leaders in any industry. A
broad statistic reinforces this fact emphatically: More than half the companies that were industry leaders in 1955 were still industry leaders in 1990. But more than two-thirds of 1990 industry leaders no longer existed by 2004.
Leaders today need to be at home navigating a ship through 40-foot waves — oceans that will never again be serene — and still be able to guide their crew safely from port to port. They must remain highly effective in an environment of extraordinary, ongoing stress.
In researching my new book, Better Under Pressure, my colleagues and I sought to identify the qualities that define leaders who excel in this environment of duress. We gathered performance data for approximately 200 candidates being assessed for the CEO role at major U.S. corporations. These candidates were divided into three groups, with the top-performing quartile labeled “highly successful,” the middle two quartiles characterized as “average performers,” and the bottom quartile as “highly ineffective.”
What emerged was startling. Certain attributes — three in particular — were highly consistent within the top performers, regardless of industry or job type. Clearly, this mental architecture was responsible for the execution ability of the most effective executives operating under pressure. What’s more, these attributes were almost totally absent among the bottom-performing quartile.
To further my investigation, I then conducted in-depth psychological interviews with more than 60 current and retired CEOs to help clarify the role each of these factors played in their leadership. One core conclusion emerged: the best CEOs had been, and continued to be, distinguished by their ability to manifest the very best from their workforce. In my interviews with the CEOs, it became even clearer that the three attributes had become even more important by the beginning of the 21st century.
To perform their best in today’s turbulent atmosphere, leaders must possess this highly unusual set of three traits that often run counter to natural human behavior. These attributes are catalysts for the mastery displayed by the world’s best CEOs — and, together, they add up to a new definition of leadership:
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