More than 30 years ago, I started working with executives and CEOs, anchored by the belief that "the future belongs to people who can see possibilities before they become obvious." This quote from one-time HBR editor Ted Levitt was about encouraging leaders to look out the front windshield of their industry and organization rather than being preoccupied with repeatedly glancing at the rear-view mirrors.  

We presented content we thought could sharpen the peripheral visions and anticipatory skills of the leaders we interacted with. We tried to provoke, challenge, suggest, and even frighten leaders to fully grasp the famous Yogi Berra line that "the future ain't what it used to be!"

As we evolved into a change management firm, we also grew into becoming partners with our clients in engaging the hearts and minds of their people. In the process, we took a lot of notes and learned a great deal about what separated the good CEOs from the great ones.

Here's what we've learned:

  1. Do-Be-Say: Rather than asking how we can best disseminate our communication plan or our transformation story, the very best CEOs ask: How do I/we embody what we hope to see in others? They ensure their behaviors and their teams' actions are totally in sync with what they say they want to be.
  2. Preoccupation with developing talent: The most impressive CEOs believe their key role is to deliver work through others, not to deliver the work themselves. The very best ones make bold commitments to spend as much time on developing talent as they do on the P&L and manage their calendars to devote time to mentoring others.
  3. Constantly seek to understand and simplify: The best CEOs make special efforts to understand what their people think and feel. They ask questions and show up in middle and front-line positions to experience exactly what it is like to work in their organization. In the spirit of servant leadership, they never stop looking for ways to simplify what is being asked of their people to better enable their success. 
  4. Confidence and humility mix: The best CEOs blend the humility to know what they don't know with the confidence to make decisions in the middle of significant ambiguity.
  5. Purpose is at the heart of it all: Memorable CEOs understand the need to grow and satisfy investors, but shareholder value is rarely the story they take to their people. They see purpose as the key ingredient to mobilize people [JT4] in the endless pursuit of being part of something bigger than any one individual.
  6. Values operate as a management system: The best CEOs believe their values are a key part of their operation system. They constantly ask themselves and their teams what the ramifications and implications of their values are on the decisions they make, how they lead, and what they decline to do.
  7. Mental rehearsal is key to being prepared: The best CEOs don't demand their thinking be accepted as the best. Instead, they enter meetings with their teams reviewing all angles of an issue. They practice a concept of mental rehearsal where they have the point-counterpoint debate in their heads before the meeting to fully explore and respect all perspectives.
  8. Public vulnerability is a strength: The best CEOs view vulnerability as a strength and a way to be authentic and transparent with their people. Intuitively, they believe that being vulnerable doesn't make you weak; rather, it makes you a better leader because you stop wasting energy on what you think other people shouldn't see.
  9. Challenge the status quo: They are often the "chief cannibalization officer" by attacking their own products, services, and processes before the competition has a chance to. This puts their teams and their companies in the best position to succeed.

What is the one key lesson you've taken away from your CEO tenure?