The CEO Speaks To You About Leadership


I asked the fascinating speaker: “But are all CEOs good? What about bad cultures and weak companies?”  Adam Bryant, author of The Corner Office:  Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, responded that he had done plenty of pieces for the New York Times on the usual topics – CEO (over)compensation, strategy, and villainy.  But he had begun his weekly CEO interviews for his column The Corner Office with an eye to getting a personal story and a positive story.  These folks had obviously done some things right and had lessons to teach and he was curious.  He’s now interviewed about 190 CEOs and shared his wisdom with students at Haas School of Business where I am teaching.

I offer his checklist of the five characteristics he sees as commonalities in their success.  I invite you to read them the way I listened to him, asking:  of these five, which might be most beneficial for me to develop in my life and work.  Here they are, from my notes, paraphrasing liberally….

  1. Passionate curiosity.  They know a lot.  But even more than “being smart,” they are curious.  About people.  About systems. About their industries.  Some folks, Bryant says, are passionate and some are curious, but when they’re passionately curious, there is a great synergy that results.
  2. Battle-hardened confidence.  They are willing to take a stand.  They have lost in the past.  They have risked. And now they will take a position.
  3. Simple mindset.  They take oceans of data and reduce it to 1-3 key messages.  He argues that it used to be a competitive advantage to have a lot of data, a lot of knowledge.  But now everyone has a ton of data.  The question is:  what’s most important and can you communicate it clearly.
  4. Team smarts.  He calls this the equivalent of “street smarts” for those who survive in the streets.  They understand what he calls the “soft levers of power.”  They know what matters to their various stakeholders; to investors, internal constituents, main competitors.
  5. Fearlessness.  Almost everyone he interviewed, he said, had taken a demotion at some point in their career for a challenge; e.g., to head up a faltering division, or to open a new or experimental market.  They had put themselves on the line to learn.  Reminds me of my favorite line from Kouzes & Posner, “Only challenge produces the opportunity for greatness.”

What’s your top challenge?  For me, it’s “simple mindset.”  Keep it simple and stay on track.  If you pick one, and I’ll throw out one suggestion for each in terms of development:

1.  Passionate curiosity.  Perhaps you are a great finisher and detail person but know you may need to look deeper or towards vision…..Suggestion:  Take a 3×5 card and write “WHY do we?”  And “Why couldn’t we?”  and put it in your pocket every day.  Whether you ask it out loud, or ask it to yourself, get in the habit of asking it.  When you answer it, you  might go back again and ask “Why?”  In other words:  Lather. Rinse Repeat.

2.  Battle-hardened confidence.  If you chose this because you need the battles to have the confidence, then skip to 5 below, “fearlessness.”  If it’s confidence.  Ask yourself:  (a) What is my best-guess on this situation?  (b) What is my data/basis for believing this?  If you can answer this question, then (c) Take a stand.  THEN learn from it: How did people resond? How did you feel?  Did it work?   Try it again in another situation.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

3.  Simple mindset.  Take two blank 3 x 5 index cards.  Mark one “home” (or personal relationship(s)).  Mark the other “work.”  Identify and write the 3 key messages you have for success in each of those domains.  What is it that we need to focus on?  Look at those cards at least four times a day:   before work, immediately after lunch, before you get out of the garage (or walk in the front door) at home, and at the beginning of the evening stretch with your family.

4.  Team smarts.  Two suggestions here:  (a)  Read. I’d suggest Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQGoleman’s work (shorter pieces available, e.g., in Harvard Business Review’s HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing People).  (b)  Put on a 3 x 5 index card that you keep with you for a month this simple question, “What really matters to ____?”  Seek to understand what they value.  Hint: As well as suspecting and inferring what they value, you can ask! People are generally quite happy to tell you what they are focused on or trying to accomplish.

5.  Fearlessness.  Set the goal for yourself that you will (at least set in motion to) take two risks this week.  Maybe it’s physical: to visit a part of the city you’ve never been before, or enter a running race; or psychological: you’ve wanted to set up a meeting with a potential mentor, or run an idea past your boss.  Fearlessness is not not having fear, but acting in spite of it (which tends to diminish it in the future).

I’d love to hear which of these 5 you think is most difficult and why!

Lead with your best self,


  • Hey Dan – thanks for the great info. I think the most important sentence in the column is “of these five, which might be most beneficial for me to develop in my life and work.” With that simple sentence, you help connect the knowledge that’s “out there” with the awareness that’s “in here.” And like, you, I would say my greatest challenge of the five is to develop “simple mindset.” I revel in abstraction, and – in the case of our non-profir – need to be able to say, boom, here’s what we we’re about and here’s what we do.

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