The 4 Qualities of a Great CEO

CEO is a title among titles. Many people hear it and think of sheer double-breasted power and vast mahogany offices. But in the world of small business and entrepreneurship, the Chief Executive Officer is much closer to the ground. It takes a certain, very specific skill set to make the kind of CEO that’s capable of leading a small business to big things.

Being CEO is different from being a manager or a team leader. It requires a completely different temperament, and well-honed abilities that are as creative as they are technical. It’s not for everyone. That’s why it’s important to identify exactly what it takes to do the job.

While great CEOs are a wildly diverse group with a range of talents and personality traits, there are a few common factors that most of them share. These four traits are are the ones found in everyone from Oprah to your local craft brewing company head, and they’re the main ingredients in the recipe for success in the position:

1. Broad thinking

CEO’s aren’t just big picture people. They’re huge picture people. They’re mural people, ceiling-of-the-Sistine-chapel people. The first quality that anyone with the highest authority in a business must have is an ability to recognize and pursue the overarching, all-encompassing vision that defines the overall mission of the company.

It’s easier described than done. To be able to keep a business functioning and profitable is one thing, but to be able to keep it directed towards a certain idea or principle is another. It’s not just driving; it’s navigating. It’s being able to keep one’s eyes trained on something that can’t be seen, on goals that have yet to be realized, while still maintaining a grasp on the present reality.

It can mean making decisions that seem painful in the short term, for the long term’s sake. It means looking beyond the day, the week, the quarter, or the year, keeping and correcting course in ways that everyone else in the business relies on the CEO to recognize. It means thinking and imagining well outside the normal parameters of business, into the realm of principle and belief, and somehow anchoring the facts of the business to that.

It takes a dreamer’s imagination, and a business person’s skepticism.

2. Leadership

By example, that is. The second trait that truly great CEOs share is the one that most inspires employees to give their best. Leadership in this sense isn’t just the ability to make tough decisions or the confidence required to give orders. It’s the ability to make employees feel as though they owe their best work to the company on principle, out of respect for the work the boss is doing.

Great CEOs never let the walk reflect anything less than the talk. They don’t simply demand transparency, they are transparent. They don’t insist on hard work, they work hard. They don’t assume they’re owed respect, they offer it to others. Above all, the great CEO issues a moral challenge to his employees- to give as much to the collective effort as the leader does.

3. Respect for personal limitations

Successful CEOs have to be exceptional at certain things. They have to be exceptionally creative. They have to be exceptionally driven. They have to be exceptionally self-confident. But what’s truly exceptional about the great CEO is that despite those exceptions, they are exceptionally comfortable with not being exceptional in every area.

The CEO does not and cannot have all the skills, nor all the answers. Identifying and enlisting the best people to do the things the CEO can’t is as vital as any other responsibility. Their ability to surrender their judgment to trustworthy, competent people is as much a sign of leadership as their ability to command.

Take the example of Dave Ramsey, whose personal finance lessons have made him one of the nation’s most sought-after speakers and teachers. Ramsey knows money. What he doesn’t know is tech. Fortunately, he knows he doesn’t know it, and he’s smart enough to dedicate himself to finding people who do. So dedicated, in fact, that he offers a $2,000 referral fee for anyone who brings him a programmer worth hiring. Putting that kind of value on the expertise he’s admittedly missing is the definition of competence in a leader.

4. Communication

No one can truly lead without great communication skills. This is mainly because the hardest people to motivate are people who don’t understand what they’re working for (aside from their pay). A great CEO has to be able to communicate the company’s vision to employees in a way that helps them understand the greater context of their work, and makes them want to pitch in.

Not only that, but CEOs also need to communicate their vision to the customers and the general public. This requires an ability to not only envision and articulate the big picture, but to boil it down and make it digestible to others. It requires not just skill with language, but an economy of language that expresses ideas in as few words as possible. It means being able to listen to what people are saying, and to fill in the gaps in people’s understanding.

These four qualities are not something that come pre-programmed into any great CEO. Rather, they are earned qualities, built inside of a person over hours, months, and years of trying, failing, experimenting, and succeeding. It’s a lifelong process. A fantastic CEO isn’t simply the result of a recipe made from the ingredients listed here. He or she is the sum total of a long journey to a place that few have reached.