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The 33 CEO Characteristics That Inspire Employees—and the One That Matters Most

The 33 CEO Characteristics That Inspire Employees—and the One That Matters Most

Everyone possesses the power to inspire by identifying and strengthening their four or five best qualities.

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The 33 CEO Characteristics That Inspire Employees—and the One That Matters Most

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What makes some CEOs inspirational leaders? What makes some companies inspiring places to work?

Bain & Co. surveyed employees about who they find inspiring among their peers and managers, and why. We sorted the answers and identified 33 characteristics that employees say are inspiring. These include characteristics such as creating compelling objectives, expressing ideas clearly to others and being receptive to input.

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It’s a big list, which my colleague Mark Horwitch and his team organized into four overarching categories: How you lead or handle yourself, how you connect with others in one-to-one interactions, how you work in groups when you’re not the formal leader, and formal leadership skills.

When the team correlated these qualities with the people who employees identified as inspiring, no particular combination of characteristics emerged as a magic formula. But the most inspiring leaders were strong on at least four of them.

In other words, everyone possesses the power to inspire by identifying and strengthening their own four or five best qualities.

For companies, this means inspiration can be developed systematically—and not just among executives. Through 360-degree surveys, self-assessments and self-reflection, companies can build awareness of each individual’s authentic strengths. At the same time, it’s possible to identify in a statistically significant way which characteristics matter most to specific groups of employees.

While no magic formula exists, our research did identify one skill that stood out above all others as essential to effective leadership—one that the best CEOs tend to possess or develop: It is the ability to choose how to respond in stressful situations, or “centeredness.”

In this political season, we often see candidates deflect questions or respond with canned sound bites. We sometimes see similar behavior from CEOs when caught up in scandals or a regulatory spotlight. Inspiring business leaders behave in a different way. Like politicians, they exist in a fishbowl of intense scrutiny from the public, analysts, regulators and their own employees. Yet they always seem ready for that defining moment. They field difficult questions or manage stressful situations with purpose, if not always with grace.

In these moments, you see the specific inspirational qualities of a CEO shine through. Some are brutally honest, others are empathetic. Perhaps you’ve seen the video of Steve Jobs telling a roomful of Apple engineers why killing so many of their projects was essential to restoring focus, or you recall reading how Starbucks’ Howard Schultz turned the company around by refocusing on its original mission. These are moments where their individual personalities were on full display—and the results were inspiring.

Centeredness consists of being fully present and aware of the situation so that you can bring your best traits to bear on the problem. This is not easy, and a completely cognitive approach—which business leaders often rely on—cannot work. Instead, leaders must apply both physical and mental exercises, such as controlled breathing, to create a state of greater mindfulness.

If that sounds like a bit of spiritual advice coming from management consultants, it is. The concept of mindfulness has been around since the Buddha introduced it 2,500 years ago. But the concept is not inherently religious. Since the mid-20th century, scientific and medical research has confirmed the effective application of mindfulness. That matters to business. Companies that have centered leaders and a culture founded on inspiration create a high level of engagement. That can make the difference between a company that performs well and one that’s extraordinary.

James Allen is co-leader of the global strategy practice at Bain & Co. and co-author of  The Founder’s Mentality.


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