What makes an excellent business leader?

04 September 2019

Each year the Lloyds Bank National Business Awards recognises inspirational leaders and chief executives, celebrating the personal impact they have within the business community. Last year, the award went to Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the then-CEO of Virgin Money.

But what makes a truly excellent CEO or business leader?

It is often said that the best business leaders show signs of psychopathy. Whether that's true or not, it certainly speaks to a peculiar set of attributes and a unique mindset that sets business leaders apart in the public consciousness.

Obviously they tend to demonstrate strong leadership skills, but they are also advocates and innovators, excellent at decision-making but also delegation.

The Harvard Business Review surveyed and reviewed business leaders – including 2,000 CEOs – to work out exactly what makes them special, and it identified four distinct traits that all of them seemed to share.

1. Speed and conviction

    The Harvard Business Review found that top CEOs don't necessarily make better decisions, but they are more decisive. They found poor CEOs scored low in their ratings because they decided ‘too little, too late.' The best leaders, meanwhile, were quick to realise when they had made a bad decision, and decisive when it came to fixing it.

2. Engaging

    The best CEOs, according to the Review, get their employees to ‘buy in' to their plans. They understand their stakeholders and make sure they're invested in the business and engaged and aligned with their strategies. They strike a balance between building consensus and taking decisive leadership over a business.

3. Adaptive and proactive

    The business landscape changes quickly, and the Harvard Business Review found that CEOs who quickly adapt to new paradigms are 6.7% more likely to succeed. As many as 50% of CEOs reportedly spend most of their time thinking about long-term strategies.

4. Reliability

    94% of the strong CEO candidates the Harvard Business Review analysed scored highly on consistently following through on their commitments. These people could set and meet realistic expectations, engaged well with their boards of directors and were excellent organisers and planners.

The impact of great CEOs on their organisation can be difficult to quantify. Some CEOs such as Elon Musk are incredibly visible figureheads and innovators, getting their fingerprints all over an organisation; others, however, operate outside of the public glare.

As the face of a company, CEOs can have an enormous impact on public perception of a company. It's easy to forget that market scepticism when Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs as Apple's chief executive in 2011 was high enough for journalists to begin asking if it was ‘the death of Apple.'

Someone like Jayne Anne-Gadhia was instrumental in her company's success. She masterminded the transformation of the collapsed Northern Rock into Virgin Money, overseeing its rebranding and subsequent stock market flotation. Her impact was in no doubt, which is why she was recognised by the National Business Awards.