Baby name expert Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. (pictured), gave 165 undergraduate students at the University of California a list of names, specific adjectives, and a numerical scale for each adjective. After completing a factor analysis of the different adjectives, Mehrabian created four basic dimensions that form our impressions of names. The dimensions are Ethical-Caring, which includes traits like being trustworthy and loyal; Popular-Fun, which includes being playful and outgoing; Successful, which includes characteristics like ambition and assertiveness; and finally, Masculinity-Feminity. Combining the first three dimensions creates an overall name attractiveness score for each individual name. This rating system helps explain why these first names—the most popular CEO names from this year's Inc. 5000 list—are so prevalent among successful business leaders.
According to the Social Security Administration, the name Michael (as in Palatnek, pictured here, from No. 3 company C2C Outdoor), which means "Who is like God?" in Hebrew, has been in the top three U.S. male baby names each year since 1954, and reigned at the very top for 38 years, from 1961 to 1998. "Given the Success score for Michael is 99, it makes sense that Michael predominates the names of CEOs," says Mehrabian. While Michaels are popular stateside, the name has long held international appeal. The name is extremely popular in England, Russia (as "Mischa"), and Mexico (as "Miguel"). Popular Michaels include Keaton, Jordan, and Jackson.
One of the oldest names there is, David (as in Amsler, pictured here, from No. 59 company Foreground Security) is a popular name because it has the same spelling and pronunciation in many different languages, including English, French, Spanish, German, Czech, Dutch, and Scandinavian. The most well-known David is the biblical King of Israel, famous for conquering the nine-foot-tall Goliath, uniting the people of Israel, and leading them to victory in battle. Here in the U.S., the name David hit its popularity peak between 1940 and 1960, but the name has inexplicably been in decline ever since. Popular Davids include Chappelle, Hasselhoff, and Bowie.
The name John (like Kellogg, pictured here, from No. 34 company Square Peg Packaging and Printing) has been bestowed to emperors, kings, popes, patriarchs, and two well-known saints—John the Baptist and John the Apostle, who wrote the Book of Revelation. While the name's popularity has been in perpetual decline since the 1800s, John remains a prominent baby name, most likely for its abundance of nicknames and misspellings—85 to be exact. Jon, Johnnie, Johnny, Jonny, Jack, Jackie, and Jonathan are all common alternatives. Famous Johns include Kennedy, Travolta, and Lennon.
An extremely popular name in the 1920s and 1930s, the name Robert (as in Wechsler, pictured here, from No. 12 company Century Payments) has kept a foothold in states from the Old South, particularly South Carolina and Mississippi: two states that still memorialize General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. Interestingly enough, however, the name Robert originated in Germany before several kings throughout Continental Europe took the name for themselves. Famous Roberts include Frost, Redford, and De Niro.
Of all of the most common male names on our Inc. 5000 list, Mark (as in Gilreath, pictured here, from No. 103 company EndoChoice) was the one name that didn't score in the 99th percentile overall, due to the Ethical-Caring impression that the name creates. However, Mehrabian contends that Mark is still an excellent name, and more importantly, it's "fun." Mark's high Popular-Fun score is supported by the fact that many of today's most successful Marks play sports, such as New York Yankee Texeira, NASCAR driver Martin, and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Ingram. Other famous Marks include Twain, Cuban, and Zuckerberg.
One of Elizabeth's many nicknames, Lisa (as in Hufford, pictured here, from No. 56 company Simplicity Consulting) topped the list as the most common female CEO name from this year's Inc. 5000. "The more biblical names stand the test of time better than the more frivolous and cutesy names," says Jennifer Moss, founder and CEO of BabyNames.com. "They're not associated with any particular decade." One of the most famous Lisas dates back to the 1500s, when Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo to celebrate the birth of her second son. "Mona Lisa" is now universally recognized as the world's most famous painting. Other famous Lisas include Kudrow, Lampanelli, and Presley.
"A long-standing, traditional Anglo-Saxon name," according to Mehrabian, Karen (as in Trowbridge, pictured here, from No. 437 company Trowbridge & Trowbridge) latches onto the popularity of its namesake, Katherine, which is one of the most classical names in the history of the Western World. Karen broke through into the U.S. mainstream during the 1950s and 1960s, becoming popular in the Northeast and New England regions and peaking as the third most popular girl's name in 1965. Karen, which means "purity," is also a name for an ethnic group in southern Burma. Famous Karens include Allen, McDougal, and Carpenter.
An extremely popular name in the 1950s, Susan (as in Kidd, pictured here, from DRT Strategies) has since dropped off in popularity, but not among our Inc. 5000 CEOs. Susan was originally derived from the Hebrew name Soshana, meaning "lily" or "rose." Susan has a powerful connotation for female leaders: One of the most famous civil rights activists of all-time, Susan B. Anthony, dedicated her life to women's rights and eventually won for her cause when Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919, guaranteeing suffrage to women. Other famous Susans include Lucci, Komen, and Sarandon.
Of all of the most names from the Inc. 5000, Amy (as in Buckner, pictured here, from No. 1648 company AnswerLab) might be the most surprising "popular" name. "Names that end in the diminutive 'y' or 'ie' tend to undercut the credibility of women," Moss says. "More serious names are taken more seriously, for women." Despite the name's low Success rating, Amy compensates in the other two categories resulting in a respectable overall attractiveness score. Amy, which means "beloved" in French, was introduced to England by way of the Norman invasion in 1066, when the Duke of Normandy seized the crown, thus spreading the institutions and cultural influences of the French and Norman people. Some of today's most famous Amys include Adams, Sedaris, and Poehler.
A Cornish variant of the name Guinevere, Jennifer (as in Schoenhofer, pictured here, from No. 428 company Axis Teknologies) hit its peak in baby name popularity in the U.S. during the 1970s and early 1980s. The year 1970 was a big year for Jennifer: in that year, Jennifer was the top name for baby girls in the U.S., and Erich Segal's romantic novel Love Story—featuring a female protagonist named Jennifer—became a national best-seller. Segal's book was adapted into a movie, which was also released that same year. Other famous Jennifers include Aniston, Lopez, and Jason Leigh.