What if you could spend years working with --and observing the leadership styles of -- the CEOs of Apple, Pixar, and Disney?

That's what Ali Rowghani did. Rowghani is the CEO of Y Combinator Continuity, the growth stage investment arm of Y Combinator, the powerful start-up business incubator and investor behind billion-dollar companies like Airbnb, Dropbox, and Stripe. Before joining Y Combinator, Rowghani held several C-level positions at Twitter and Pixar.

In a recent article on Y Combinator's blog, Rowghani analyzed the leadership traits of four CEOs he has worked closely with over the course of his career, leaders whom he considers "extraordinary": Steve Jobs (Apple's --and Pixar's --former CEO), Ed Catmull (Pixar's founder), John Lasseter (Pixar's Chief Creative Officer), and Bob Iger (Disney's CEO).

Despite their differences in leadership styles, what these four leaders have in common is their ability to build trust. "Each differs considerably in style, temperament, and approach...And yet, despite their differences, these leaders built trust by doing the same three things exceptionally well, though each in his own way."

So what are the "same three things" these leaders do to build trust? Here's what Rowghani found:

Clarity of Thought and Communication.

The first characteristic of a great leader that Rowghani identified is the ability to think and communicate clearly: "If your employees are confused about your mission and strategy, or do not find it motivating or credible, they will not follow you with the focus and determination necessary to succeed."

"Great leaders spend hours preparing their internal communications. They don't just wing it, no matter how naturally talented they are as communicators," says Rowghani. He cites the example of how Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke and his senior team spend hundreds of hours preparing for their annual employee Summit. "If we communicate well at the Summit, we achieve great alignment by the end," says Lütke.

Judgment About People.

CEOs devote a lot of time to hiring and firing people, and the best CEOs do this particularly well, according to Rowghani: "They are able to see hidden potential in people and detect cases where ambition exceeds ability. And when they make hiring or promotion mistakes, which are inevitable, they have the courage to rectify the situation if the employee cannot be coached to improve. Nothing does more damage to an organization or to the standing of a leader than picking the wrong leaders or failing to correct these mistakes when they happen."

Rowghani's advice for hiring great people? "Spend as much time as you can getting to know executives that you are considering hiring." He cites a 2016 interview with Uber CTO Thuan Pham, who describes being interviewed by CEO Travis Kalanick for "30 hours straight, one-on-one, over two weeks," including over Skype when Travis was traveling.

Personal Integrity and Commitment.

For Rowghani, the third characteristic that marks a great leader who knows how to build trust is personal integrity and commitment. "Integrity means standing for something meaningful beyond oneself rather than being motivated by narrow personal interests. It means being able to admit when you have made a mistake rather than acting like you are always right and having the humility to receive critical feedback openly and work to improve. It means avoiding behavior like favoritism, conflicts of interest, inappropriate language, inappropriate work relationships, etc., that erode trust."

Rowghani sums up these three leadership lessons with this advice: "In difficult times, as you evaluate one course of action versus another, ask yourself which path will generate more trust in you as a person and as a leader. Always try to choose that path."

Read Rowghani's complete analysis of these leadership traits on Y Combinator's blog.

Published on: Feb 13, 2017