The past 25 years has seen the rise (and sometimes fall) of a series of cult CEOS. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Elizabeth Holmes, Adam Neumann, and the world’s richest man, Elon Musk. Although that title seems to be incredibly elusive on day-by-day basis. So, what do we mean by a cult CEO?
The urban dictionary defines a cult leader as “Someone who runs a large group following with the intention to gain monetary advantage, who brain washes followers to blindly accept their views as the ultimate word and opposition is evil”. A CEO is defined as “the executive with the chief decision-making authority in an organization or business.” Both these definitions explain what these leaders do but they don’t give any insight to who they are.
When we look at some of the personality traits that drive cult leaders and in this discussion cult CEOs, you can start to find some common ground. Think charismatic, persuasive, visionary, authoritative, arrogant, dominant, and sometimes narcissistic. Now we’re starting to see how this relates to modern day corporate leadership.
Take Elon Musk. An industry disruptor challenging the biggest economic drivers of our generation: finance, automotive, green energy, and space exploration. His outrageous goals to put people on Mars in 2025, or to sell 20 million Tesla’s a year by 2030 may not come to fruition but the targets he continues to hit are pretty incredible and the fervent followers he’s accrued is impressive.
The cult CEO shares a vision so inspirational that their employees follow with passion and commitment. But too often this type of leadership discourages questioning of the vision. Doubts equal treason. While many have succeeded with this approach, others too often fail as they ignore challenges from market conditions and competitors. Dare we say our local example, BlackBerry?
Business leaders or teams that are not ready to adapt or ask questions have a tough time in today’s world. A report by Gartner, a large executive consulting firm, showed that 65% of the business decisions being made today are more complex than they were two years ago—more connected, more contextual, and more continuous. With this in mind let’s look at what characteristics make a good CEO and some old and emerging leadership styles.
4 traits that good CEOs share
A strong business leader will get their employees to believe in the project, motivate their ongoing work and be sure each team member excels. While there is no one sure way to accomplish this a recent study by Harvard Business Review found a few common skills great CEOs have.
1. Strong decision makers
They do it fast and they stand by them. Good leaders know that decisions are critical, even when you don’t have all the information. Many CEOs will go as far to say that a decision period, is better than no decision at all. In fact, the best CEOs believe providing direction and confidence far outweighs a wrong decision.
2. Engage on all fronts
Buy-in from employees, boards and investors is mission critical for great CEOs. Understanding their stakeholders needs and motivations and then engaging them around goal creation and performance, works. This study found that leaders who engaged with this results orientation focus were 75% more successful.
When leaders fail to change based on new evidence, new products, or new situations they will fail. Analysis showed, CEOs who are excellent at adapting were 6.7 times more likely to succeed.
Finally, investors, employees, and even customers love reliability. They want to count on their leader, their company, and its products. An unbelievable 94% of the CEO candidates studied scored high on consistently delivering on their commitments.
8 Leadership Styles
With those top skills in mind, let’s focus on the most common leadership styles in the business world today.
Often viewed as more old school, this style is a top-down approach where decision and policies are made without employee input. High standards, big rewards and strict punishments for failed performances are also part of the package. Many dictators follow this approach, and even Bill Gates was known as an authoritative leader. While it allows for quick decisions and clear direction it can also alienate high performers who need to feel a part of the strategy.
Working from a principle that employees have the experience and skills needed to get the job done, a laissez-faire leader believes any intervention by management is harmful. This style empowers independent work and strives to make their team feel less constrained and more valued.
This style is based solely on a reward system. Think sales and commissions. Leaders reward their employees’ performance with a transaction, encouraging them to hit their goals. The main function of this approach is to create a shared system where each team member can work towards an individual and or shared milestones.
Taking a page from the government model, a democratic leader promotes the participation of all workers, consulting their team and inviting opinions to the decision-making table. Encouraging dialogue, they make their employees feel a part of the company, with the aim of improving their company commitment.
Flexible and adaptable to circumstances, a situational leader knows when to change their approach to suit the circumstances at hand. Trusting the maturity of their workers and the company’s goals, this leader chooses the most appropriate leadership style, to the situation or to manage particular employees.
Putting people first, this approach fosters and nurtures employees. Building loyalty, improving emotional bonds, and giving out praise, to gain employee satisfaction and commitment to the company. The affiliative leader maintains unity and works hard for employees to feel connected to the organization and its goals.
With a priority on innovation, transformational leaders will inspire their teams to create, take risks and lead. Asking big questions and encouraging their team to look for different and unconventional solutions through hard work and adaptability. Building a strong corporate culture, leading by example, and fostering open communication and mentorship opportunities are important traits of this leadership style. A successful example to read more about is Howard Shultz, CEO of Starbucks.
Probably one of the most intuitive and difficult leadership styles, the strategist adapts but is steadfast in protecting company core values. Combining big-picture thinking while still paying attention to the minute details, strategic leaders predict change before it happens, capitalizing on opportunities others may miss. They do their research, constantly learning and challenging traditional thinking. Former CEO of LinkedIn Jeff Weiner certainly aligns with this approach.
This brings us to an emerging style of leadership know as sapient. These are leaders who are genuine, vulnerable, and lean on these traits in times of crises. Over the past few years, the world has endured a global pandemic and experience a constant state of crisis or what some are calling a “new normal” defined by three dimensions:
- Perpetual: change happening all the time in a constant way.
- Pervasive: change unfolding in many areas of life at the same time.
- Exponential: change accelerating at an ever-growing rate.
This 3-D change is becoming our new reality and therefore impacting how businesses and their leadership succeed or fail. Sapient leaders respond to 3-D change with four main characteristics.
A sapient leader builds a connection and trust by being humble, authentic, and open. It allows for team members to feel safe, speak honestly and be able to make mistakes. Employees can safely challenge leadership and even openly disagree, bringing more experience and expertise to the table for a leader to work with.
An organization where people feel psychologically safe creates opportunities for their best performance. Trust also fosters teamwork that leaders can tap into to combat constant change. Research has shown the highest performing teams have psychological safety. When people are comfortable being vulnerable in front of one another and are willing to take risks, they perform better.
Just keep learning
A sapient leader prioritizes learning for themselves and for their organization. It becomes a corporate cultural value, promoting curiosity to help thrive in an unpredictable environment. We’ve already touched on how important adaptability is; knowledge is key to being able to adapt. It really is all about a growth mindset.
Build common values and purpose
Similar to other powerful leadership styles getting buy in and shared goals across stakeholders builds success. It’s the foundation that leaders and team members can draw upon when times get tough. Like minds increase organizational focus, build stronger teams, and empower resilience under the constant pressure of 3-D change.
What we’ve discovered is the leaders of today and tomorrow need to be in touch with the world and the people that work for them. A top down all knowing approach may not thrive in the future. Leaders who are empathetic, humble, and empowering can build strong teams. And those teams build capacity to navigate 3-D change effectively.