Top 10 Traits of the World’s Business Leaders

By Dominic Chapman / February 02, 2017

Top 10 Traits of the World’s Business Leaders


We all love to hear from CEOs of the biggest companies on the planet. But what exactly is it about these industry influencers that makes them great leaders? We’ve got it down to 10 distinct traits…

1. Perseverance

One of the greatest stories of true persistence. Harlan Sanders – AKA Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken – did not achieve open his first restaurant until he was 40 years old, which was then destroyed by a fire. Leading up to his involvement with KFC, his CV read like an employer’s worst nightmare having been let go from many jobs. Before eventually franchising his first restaurant, Colonel Sanders had worked in many jobs as a farmer, streetcar conductor and insurance salesman. It wasn’t until the age of 65 that the Colonel focused on franchising the restaurant concept. At 73, he sold KFC for $2 million. How’s that for perseverance?

2. Talent spotting

“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.” – David Ogilvy

Hiring the right people is essential. A leader needs a close team of people that will understand the business and company vision inside and out, so it should come as no surprise that picking the right talent to work with is essential. Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs set out to surround himself with the best individuals in the business, recognising the great things that can be achieved at Apple with a team of powerful minds. His sales pitch to them was always the same: leave what you’re doing and make a real difference with us.

3. Insatiable thirst for knowledge

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX & Tesla Motors, is a famous reader. Along with earning two degrees in physics and economics, he had taught himself aerospace engineering. Elon’s brother, Kimbal was quoted saying “He would go through two books in one day”, demonstrating his thirst for knowledge and information. He also holds an incredible confidence in his companies, refusing to acknowledge failure as a possibility. Elon Musk’s desire to absorb knowledge is a huge factor of his success. Conversely, he claimed that his biggest mistake has been putting “too much of a weighting on someone’s talent and not enough on their personality.”

4. Risk taking

“Don’t worry about failure; you only have to be right once.” says Drew Houston, Dropbox Co-founder & CEO.

Risks occur in many forms: for some, risk may take shape in abandoning a steady pay check to venture out on their own or using own funds to keep a young business afloat, as designer Rebecca Minkoff had done before going on to become an industry leader in fashion. During the recession, Minkoff’s collection was under threat of being dropped by certain retailers after cutting her prices in response to changes in her audience’s lifestyle. She decided to listen to her customer instead and risked upsetting disgruntled retailers, describing this as one of the “scariest decisions” the company had made. The company grew by 546% during the recession of 2008.

5. Toughness

While commonly taught to us all, being thick-skinned is a trait important to the survival of a leader’s spirit and drive. Walt Disney was told he lacked imagination while working at the Kansas City Star. He went on to become a generation-defining animator whose ideas inspired many, having created some of the most recognisable characters in modern history. Now, Disney is a household name whose ideas influenced the childhoods of many across the globe.

6. Visionaries

It’s no secret that every company starts with a vision. Business leaders with a strong sense of vision focus on the impact they want to make, rather than what they sell. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz says “Coffee is the product, but it’s not the business we’re in,” which is why Starbucks is the biggest coffee chain to date, operating worldwide. Starbucks vision is to “inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time”, a simplistic vision made powerful by those guiding it.

7. Love what you do, do what you love

Passionately inspired leaders are powerful individuals. A CEO with their heart invested in a business will have endless amounts of energy and inspire others while they work. Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life, as Virgin CEO Richard Branson says, “Being your own boss is great. You get to choose which 18 hours of the day you work.” How is your team supposed to dedicate 100% if you don’t? Showing passion and care inspires others to do the same.

8. Collaborate with employees

Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor by just one person. Management styles that involve two-way communication between staff members of all levels are becoming increasingly popular. The rise in urgency for a distinctive culture within companies may be responsible for the rise in need of more collaborative leadership styles. The work team has evolved into a unique community, where no opinion is right or wrong and free thinking is encouraged – a far cry from the workforce we used to see before digital.

9. Engaged employees right down the chain of command

Richard Branson’s personal mission statement: “In business, know how to be a good leader and always try to bring out the best in people. It’s very simple: listen to them, trust in them, believe in them, respect them, and let them have a go!” There has long been a debate over whether a leader should use their heart or head when making business-related decisions. Business relationships suffer when employees do not connect with their boss; a Harvard Business Review survey revealed that more workers would trust a total stranger more than their own boss. To remedy this, leaders should be encouraged to establish meaningful connections within the workplace as opposed to using negative tactics, such as fear.

10. Self-improvement/adaptability

All humans have weaknesses, even human CEOs. “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” Says Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates. Self-awareness and earnest acknowledgement of your strengths and weaknesses is key to personal development, something that most business leaders focus on more than you’d think. Just as a business must adapt according to the emerging themes and trends in the marketplace, so should the head of a company, otherwise said company will fall behind. To stay sharp, CEOs look to acknowledge and improve upon their weaknesses so that they do not hold them back in the future.