The perfect CEO? Reality rarely fits the mythical mould

Too many organisations have the wrong idea about what makes the ‘perfect CEO’. Breaking down the stereotypes could help firms see through the executive mystique

Rear view of young Asian woman in blazer, looking at city view in modern commercial building.

Myths hold a great deal of power, as they can influence not only how we feel but the way we make our decisions. For businesses, misconceived stereotypes about the what makes a perfect CEO can cause great harm, and therefore, debunking the stereotypes that help create the idea of the perfect CEO is truly an important endeavour. 

Stereotypical characterisations of the ‘perfect CEO’ are easy to come by. CEOs are meant to be extroverted, self-promoting, risk-takers and optimistic by nature – the list can go on and on. But are these commonly held preconceptions actually true? 

There are three key myths that help nurture the idea of the perfect CEO, which is one of business’ most dangerous spells.

The three myths of the perfect CEO

Charisma is the key ingredient for the perfect CEO

Most people are likely to list qualities like ambition, being results-oriented, drive and, above all, charisma when asked to describe the perfect CEO. Charisma is a very desirable quality in a leader; however, it is also correlated with narcissism.

The best CEOs typically distinguish themselves in four ways, which all boil down to building trust

Promotions are too frequently given to people who exude self-assurance, intelligence, charm, interest and political awareness. But once in charge, these people run the risk of making self-serving choices, taking big chances and wreaking havoc on their organisations. Although they may appear to be more strategically ambitious, highly charismatic leaders are often less effective when it comes to leading a team.

Humility is a considerably stronger measure of leadership effectiveness than charisma, and it often directly correlates with job success. Gaining an understanding of their own abilities and limitations, accepting criticism, encouraging teamwork and being modest all help unassuming managers to be more effective leaders.

Furthermore, humble leaders frequently secure a succession plan before they leave, which helps the organisations they oversee continue to operate effectively even after they are gone. Humble leaders also frequently create engagement, retain good people and have a longer tenure within an organisation than their more arrogant peers.

The perfect CEO never fails

Despite our best efforts, failure is a part of life and cannot be avoided. The fundamental test of a good CEO is not whether they fail, but rather how they handle failure. Organisations place a high value on employees’ responses to life’s lessons since it has a significant impact on both their professional achievement and that of their organisations. Many CEOs view and respond to failure inadvertently, making it difficult for them to learn from it. As a result, they frequently repeat their earlier errors.

People who assign or deflect blame in a self-serving manner frequently experience unfavourable consequences, such as losing the respect or trust of their coworkers. On the other hand, those who lack resilience or overdo self-criticism risk experiencing professional stagnation and paralysis.

CEOs must be aware of these inclinations, work to overcome them and learn from both personal and professional failure if they are to thrive and grow in a constructive leadership environment. Fortunately, some activities can be taken to enhance one’s response to failure. These include developing self-awareness, getting feedback from reliable sources and adopting new tactics to recover from setbacks.

Perfect CEOs are in some ways ‘superhuman’

The best CEOs typically distinguish themselves in four ways, which all boil down to building trust: great judgement, integrity, credibility and support. None of these qualities is miraculous, but all are traits that are displayed in great leaders.

CEOs tends to inspire trust on various levels by managing competing demands that are present in a complicated state of tension, which is what these four characteristics have in common. Be visionary yet humble; encourage your team but hold them accountable; and be swift and decisive but exact.

The CEO position is a paradoxical exercise akin to walking a tightrope over a high wire. CEOs are not superhuman; in fact, they follow a very fundamental law of nature: neither the smartest nor the strongest species survives, but rather the one that can best adjust to change.

Jackie Sahm is vice-president of integrated solutions at Hogan Assessments