Running a company, department, or team is hard. Have you ever wished you could ask the most successful CEOs how they do it? Well you can't, but someone else already has--New York Times reporter Adam Bryant, who has interviewed 525 CEOs over the past 10 years for his Corner Office column, asking them for their leadership insights rather than about their companies. On Friday, Bryant published the last of these columns, and he used his farewell piece to provide an amalgamation of everything he'd learned from the CEOs over the years. It's a fascinating read for any leader. Here are some of their most interesting lessons:

1. There's no right way to become a leader.

Business columnists (including me) love to write about the one quality you need to be a great leader, but Bryant says there really isn't any such thing. "There are too many variables, many of them beyond your control, including luck, timing, and personal chemistry," he explains. Nor is there any obvious career path for CEOs, he writes, though he does note that a surprising number of them were not straight-A students and even got bad grades.

2. You have to balance the opposites.

So many of the things a good leader needs to do are contradictory, Bryant writes. "Better to understand leadership as a series of paradoxes," he states. For instance, you need humility to know what you don't know but audacity to make bold moves. Empathy is hugely important, but so is the ability to fire someone (even while empathizing with that person). 

One CEO talked about opposing leadership values: listening versus leadership, being generous versus holding people accountable, and so on. "There is a tension or a balance between them," she said.

3. Culture comes from what you do, not what you say.

Most CEOs have at some point gone through the exercise of defining their companies' values and culture. Bryant calls it "a predictable rite of passage." The thing is that it doesn't matter how many retreats you go on, or whether you provide flexible hours, unlimited vacations, ping-pong tables, or catering--there's only one way to let employees know your company's culture and values: by whom you discipline and whom you reward.

"No matter what people say about culture, it's all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises, and who gets fired," one CEO told Bryant. Whatever you say about culture, people in your company will see the people who get promoted as role models for the behavior you want.

4. You have to be trustworthy.

If you forced him to pick one quality all good leaders need, Bryant writes, it would be trustworthiness. "We all have a gut sense of our bosses, based on our observations and experiences: Do we trust them to do the right thing?" he writes. "Do they own their mistakes; give credit where credit is due; care about their employees as people as opposed to assets?"

As one CEO put it, "If you want to lead others, you've got to have their trust, and you can't have their trust without integrity."

5. It's all about respect--yours, not theirs.

For me, one of Bryant's most surprising insights was about the importance of respect--but not that good leaders need to earn the respect of their employees. It's the flip side: That the best leaders have the greatest respect for those who report to them.

One CEO put it this way: "By definition, if there's leadership, it means there are followers, and you're only as good as the followers. I believe the quality of the followers is in direct correlation to the respect you hold them in. It's not how much they respect you that is most important. It's actually how much you respect them. It's everything." That's counterintuitive. And yet, it makes perfect sense.

Published on: Oct 31, 2017
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