9 Traits that Define an Exceptional CEO in the Modern Era

modern ceo

Leaders distinguish themselves. They show their ability to lead and be successful in the way they think and act, and in the way they inspire others around them to rise to embrace success. Yet, there are different degrees of leadership—and different traits that manifest themselves across different leadership positions and levels. At the very top of the chain is the CEO: the leader at the forefront of every successful company.

What traits define a CEO? That’s a complex question because truly, it depends on the leadership style and values of each executive. Yet, in the modern era, there are a few core traits that show up time and again when looking at what makes a successful CEO.

Here are nine of the most ubiquitous: traits for success that transcend company size, industry and even individual management style.

  1. Compassion is a timeless trait among top-level leaders. Especially today, in a post-pandemic world with grating socioeconomic factors to consider, exhibiting compassion helps leaders achieve trust and buy-in from those following them. Compassion creates connection, which amounts to feeling of inclusion among workers. It’s a strong trait to have in the face of burnout and trends like “quiet quitting.”
  2. Empathy goes hand-in-hand with compassion, and forges strong, meaningful connections between leaders and subordinates. The ability to put themselves in other peoples’ shoes and understand both sides of a situation is what makes a leader great, both internally and externally, in every interaction they’re part of. Empathy is also an incredibly important part of modern ESG and DEI initiatives.
  3. A leader needs to be open to everything from new ideas to constructive criticism, and they need to show others that they embrace feedback. Receptive leaders are compatible in any environment because they keep the line of communication open. They’re not afraid to admit they’re wrong, and they’re always learning and improving. Unsurprisingly, these leaders are also adept at teaching and providing guidance.
  4. Creative, imaginative leaders think outside the box to capitalize on new solutions and innovative ideas. In a world where qualitative solutions are equally as important as quantitative ones, creative leaders stand poised to succeed. Creative leadership fosters an innovative company culture and the success that comes with it.
  5. This attribute almost speaks for itself. No one wants to follow a leader plagued by trepidation or hesitant to make decisions. Confident, decisive, unwavering leadership is critical to success—especially in uncertain times and environments. A confident leader is capable of shaping the trajectory of their career and the company they’re at the helm of.
  6. Critical thinking. CEOs who can think in terms of multifaceted problems and multi-pronged solutions are invaluable. Critical thinking isn’t just about problem-solving, either. Identifying opportunities and challenges to act proactively rather than reactively is a core trait today—especially in the face of new paradigms like remote work. Critical thinkers aren’t confined by traditional parameters; they’re intent on deriving solutions.
  7. People want to show up to work at a place that’s brimming with positive energy, led by someone with an infectious sense of optimism. Optimism breeds confidence and creates a culture that’s instrumental in the success of a company—regardless of the challenges it faces. Optimistic leaders see opportunity in challenges, and they have a knack for leading companies through turbulent times with grace.
  8. Do you know where your company is going? A CEO with vision is imperative, because that vision dictates the direction of the organization. From setting high-level goals to ensuring there’s company-wide buy-in on the mission, visionary executives see the future and seize the opportunity to create it for the companies they lead.
  9. An authentic CEO is a successful one. There are fewer question marks or uncertainties when you know someone is being themselves, and there’s less of a chance that the curtain will drop to reveal a different persona. Authentic leaders don’t spend time keeping up a false image or brand—instead, they channel that energy into success.

It’s important to realize that individuals will express these traits in different ways. It might be in the way they communicate or in how they approach problems. These traits might manifest in the culture they emphasize or the initiatives they choose to focus on. No matter how they come through, they’re possessed in some degree by the CEOs tasked with moving companies forward. Make sure they’re present in the person you’re putting at the helm.

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