There is a wealth of leadership literature examining the charismatic figure of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in general, and of certain prestigious CEOs in particular, all of it searching for the mysterious combination of attitudes and aptitudes that can pave the way for success. But going against the grain of the stereotypes we’ve been constructing for years, more analytical studies have shown that it’s not only the chosen few who can be good business leaders.

The Chief Executive Officer of a startup is its head honcho: the brains behind the business idea, the architect of its strategy, and the designer of the company’s culture, values, pillars, and priorities… And it’s impossible to define a figure as complex as this without looking at findings from the CEO Genome Project, a study carried out over 10 years by leadership consultant ghSmart: read an excellent account published at the time in the Harvard Business Review.

The project’s objective was to identify the characteristics of executive leaders who’ve reached the top of major corporations, and following on from this, the characteristics entrepreneurs need to nurture if they want to go far. More than 2000 CEOs were assessed in the study.

Firstly, the study served to debunk the myth of the charismatic and extrovert CEO. According to their analysis, introverts are more likely to exceed the expectations of their own team – and their investors.

Secondly, the university they attended appeared not to have a correlation with whether these business owners triumphed or not.

Thirdly, all acknowledged the mistakes they’d made in their professional lives, and in fact 45% of them said they had caused serious issues in their former businesses.

CEO - insur_space by MAPFRE

But the most interesting element of the analysis was that they found four characteristics common to all of those whose projects had been a great success.

  1. Making decisions quickly, and with conviction, whilst consulting and listening to all around them. The CEO asks their team and trusted advisors for advice and opinions: they don’t act as a solitary visionary, nor do they fit the stereotypical mould of the leader we see in films, who knows what needs to be done at all times. But once they’ve consulted with – and listened to – others, they must make decisions quickly and not waver.


On the other hand, according to the study, teams don’t trust leaders who waver, and view leaders who humbly consult and listen in a positive light.

  1. Involve other people. Know how to tell employees what strategies to follow, and keep the door open to feedback. This requires skills in listening, communicating, and empathy. And talking of doors, a good CEO will promote a company’s doors always being open – including their own – and will provide times and spaces for conversations and discussions with the staff working under them.
  1. Anticipate changes so you can adapt before they happen. It’s better to be proactive than reactive. The most successful executives showed better skills in adapting to changes and setbacks. Mistakes are seen as opportunities for learning and growth.
  2. Produce and provide realistic expectations based on both solid analysis and clear results. This is more a question of attitude than skill, and generates confidence in their team as well as among investors. It means paying particular attention – above all at the start and before making any decisions – to budgets, forecasts, and plans, in an analytical and conscientious fashion.

You could well say this is a behaviour pattern for success, and one that can be added to the skill in creating a solid team of professionals. In fact, many of the CEOs assessed admitted they’d failed in their attempts to create the best team in a short amount of time.

One thing is clear from the CEO Genome Project: although they may have found characteristics that are common to success, there’s no precise recipe. Depending on the circumstances and financial setting, one ingredient might well be more crucial than another.