Three Traits of Leadership

There is no prototype for the perfect CEO. Radically different styles—think Steve Jobs, Bill Campbell, and Andy Grove—can all lead to great outcomes. Perhaps the most important attribute required to be a successful CEO is leadership. So, what is leadership and how do we think about it in the context of the CEO job? Are great leaders born or made?

Most people define leadership in the same way that Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography when he said, “I know it when I see it.” For our purposes, we can generalize this to be the measure of the quality of a leader: the quantity, quality, and diversity of people who want to follow her.

So, what makes people want to follow a leader? We look for three key traits:

  1. The ability to articulate the vision
  2. The right kind of ambition
  3. The ability to achieve the vision

Let’s take these in order.

The Ability to Articulate the Vision: The Steve Jobs Attribute

Can the leader articulate a vision that’s interesting, dynamic, and compelling? More important, can the leader do this when things fall apart? More specifically, when the company gets to a point when it does not make financial sense for any employee to continue working there, will the leader be able to articulate a vision that’s compelling enough to make people stay?

Ben Horowitz believes Jobs’s greatest achievement as a visionary leader was in getting so many super-talented people to continue following him at NeXT, long after the company lost its patina, and in getting the employees of Apple to buy into his vision when the company was weeks away from bankruptcy. It’s difficult to imagine any other leader being so compelling that he could accomplish these goals back-to-back, and this is why we call this one the Steve Jobs attribute.

The Right Kind of Ambition: The Bill Campbell Attribute

One of the biggest misperceptions in our society is that a prerequisite for becoming a CEO is to be selfish, ruthless, and callous. In fact, the opposite is true and the reason is obvious. The first thing that any successful CEO must do is get really great people to work for her. Smart people do not want to work for people who do not have their interests in mind and in heart.

Most of us have experienced this in our careers: a bright, ambitious, hardworking executive whom nobody good wants to work for and who, as a result, delivers performance far worse than one might imagine.

Truly great leaders create an environment where the employees feel that th CEO cares more about the employees than she cares about herself. In this kind fo environment, an amazing thing happens: A huge number of employees believe it’s their company and behave accordingly. As the company grows large, these employees become quality control for the entire organization. They set the work standard that all future employees must live up to. As in, “Hey, you need to do a better job on that data sheet—you are screwing up my company.”

Ben Horowitz calls this characteristic the Bill Campbell attribute after the man who is the best he’s ever seen at this. If you talk to people who worked in any of the many organizations that Bill has run, they refer to those organizations as “my organization” or “my company.” A huge part of why he has been so remarkably strong in this dimension of leadership is that he’s completely authentic. He would happily sacrifice his own economics, fame, glory, and rewards for his employees. When you talk to Bill, you get the feeling that he cares deeply about you and what you have to say, because he does. And all of that shows up in his actions and follow-through.

The Ability to Achieve the Vision: The Andy Grove Attribute

The final leg of our leadership stool is competence, pure and simple. If I buy into the vision and believe that the leader cares about me, do I think she can actually achieve the vision? Will I follow her into the jungle with no map forward or back and trust that she will get me out of there? Ben Horowitz refers to this as the Andy Grove attribute. Andy Grove is Ben’s model of CEO competence. He earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, wrote the best management book Ben has ever read (High Output Management), and tirelessly refined his craft. Not only did he write exceptional books on management, but he taught management classes at Intel throughout his tenure.

In his classic book Only the Paranoid Survive, Grove tells how he led Intel through the dramatic transition from the memory business to the microprocessor business. In making that change he walked away from nearly all his revenue. He humbly credits others in the company with coming to the strategic conclusion before he did, but the credit for swiftly and successfully leading the company through the transition goes to Dr. Grove. Changign your primary business as a sixteen-year-old large, public company raises a lot of questions.

Andy describes an incident. With one of his employees: “One of them attacked me aggressively, asking, ‘Does it mean that you can conceive of Intel without being in the memory business?’ I swallowed hard and said, ‘Yes, I guess I can.’ All hell broke loose.”

Despite shocking many of his best employees with this radical strategy, ultimately the company trusted Anday. They trusted him to rebuild their company around an entirely new business. That trust turned out to be very well placed.

So, Are Great Leaders Born or Made? Let’s look at this one attribute at a time:

  1. Articulating the vision. There is no question that some people are much better storytellers than others. However, it is also true that anybody can greatly improve in this area through focus and hard work. All CEOs should work on the vision component of leadership.
  2. Alignment of interests. I’m not sure if the Bill Campbell attitude is impossible to learn, but I am pretty sure that it is impossible to teach. Of the three, this one most fits the bill “born not made.”
  3. Ability to achieve the vision. This attribute can absolutely be learned; perhaps this is why Andy Grove’s tolerance for incompetence was legendarily low. Indeed, the enemy of competence is sometimes confidence. A CEO should never be so confident that she stops improving her skills.

In the end, some attributes of leadership can be improved more than others, but every CEO should work on all three. Furthermore, each attribute enhances all three. If people trust you, they will listen to your vision even if it is less articulate. If you are super-competent, they will trust you and listen to you. If you can paint a brilliant vision, people will be patient with you as you learn the CEO skills and give you more leeway with respect to their interests.