Are CEOs born or made? According to entrepreneur-turned-top venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, most of the tricky skills needed to excel are drummed into leaders through years of experience.
Likening critical CEO capabilities, such as giving difficult feedback, to learning the unnatural motion of lifting your back foot first in boxing, he claims “it generally takes years for a founder to develop the CEO skill set.” In short, Horowitz insists CEOs are made, not born.
But just because becoming an exceptional leader takes a whole lot of practice, it doesn’t mean everyone can become a CEO through hard work. While you invite disappointment if you believe some people are simply naturals at the job, you invite years of wasted effort if you don’t also acknowledge that certain fundamental mindsets are a prerequisite for getting started on this long path of learning.
What are they? Experts suggest you need to nail these basics before you can even start to think of yourself as potential CEO material.
1. You’re curious and a constant learner.
The first tip-off that a commitment to continual self-improvement is key to leadership success is the fact that nearly every business icon you can think of from Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey describes him or herself as a perpetual learner. But if you want more quantitative backing for this idea, it exists too.
Research shows that you’re more likely to reach the top of an organization if you’ve had a variety of roles, from finance to marketing, rather than hunkered down and built expertise in just one department where you felt comfortable.
“Evidence suggests that success in the business world isn’t just about brain power or climbing a linear path to the top, but about accumulating diverse skills and showing an ability to learn about fields outside one’s comfort zone.”
2. You’re willing to feel like you’re the dumbest person in the room.
Are CEOs smart? Sure, running a company takes a certain degree of intelligence. But for top leaders, the ability to gather and listen to exceptional brains is more important than personal mental horsepower. Great leadership involves enough humility to respect others’ gifts and enough confidence to reveal your own limitations and accept their help.
Or as entrepreneur Kevin Johnson cleverly put it, you need to be OK with sometimes feeling like you’re the dumbest person in the room. “The average person is intimidated by smart people. If given a choice to spend a week quarantined with really smart people or people of average intelligence, the average Jane would choose people of average intelligence.”
If you’re CEO material, however, you’ll put learning and results before ego and surround yourself with the truly brilliant. It’s why Johnson is always looking to make a super smart friend. “They make me feel inadequate and sometimes just really stupid, but I am OK with that, because I know that I learn so much from them,” he explains.
3. You can know a dream is crazy, but chase it anyway.
How does Elon Musk, leader of some of the world’s most long-shot ventures, deal with risk? He doesn’t ignore it. In fact, he recently told an interviewer that he’s absolutely terrified by the huge risks inherent in pursuing borderline insane projects such as Mars colonization. “I feel fear quite strongly,” he reported.
But faced with terrible odds, he doesn’t resort to irrational optimism. He acknowledges the likelihood of failure and accurately assesses the long list of risks he’s facing, but then he proceeds anyway. “When starting SpaceX, I thought the odds of success were less than 10 percent, and I just accepted that actually probably I would just lose everything. But that maybe we would make some progress,” he continued.
This odd coupling of open-eyed risk assessment and a willingness to dare anyway is a hallmark of great CEOs. The ideal CEO is “assured of the achievability of long-term goals yet nervous about the attainability of near-term milestones. This schizophrenic mindset ensures that an entrepreneur maintains an unyielding belief in the manifestation of their vision while never taking for granted the execution of their start up’s most basic tasks.”
4. You tend to get obsessed.
Some call this quality passion. Others refer to it as focus. But whatever term you want to use, being a great CEO requires the ability (if not an inborn compulsion) to latch onto interesting questions or problems, shut out distractions, and work relentlessly until you have a solution.
As a young programmer, Bill Gates, for instance, was famed for working at his keyboard until he nodded off, still sitting up. When he woke, he simply looked up, oriented himself for a few seconds, and began working away again. GoPro CEO Nick Woodman pursued his dream of a better surf video obsessively, through months of intense experimentation.
Perhaps Dropbox founder Drew Houston described this quality best, using the metaphor of a tennis ball. “The tennis ball is about finding the thing you’re obsessed with,” he said. “The most successful people and successful entrepreneurs I know are all obsessed with solving a problem that really matters to them. I use the tennis ball for that idea because of my dog, who gets this crazy, obsessed look on her face when you throw the ball for her.”
Do you get a crazy look in your eye when you spot a problem in need of solving?
5. You can tell a captivating story.
You want to run a business, not write a hit TV show, so why is the ability to tell a great story so important to success as a CEO? Because humans are renowned for their imperviousness to logic (just look at basically any political discussion, if you need proof). If you want to change minds and convince people to follow you, you’re going to need to appeal to emotion. And nothing arouses our emotions as much as a great tale.
“CEOs have to deal with conflicting interest groups,” said Scoble. “Customers often want something investors don’t. So a good CEO is really great at convincing other people to get on board, even at changing people’s opinions.”