CEO Leadership – Honesty, Integrity, Listening and Empathy

At the outset, let me concede that I am not a psychiatrist (although we all feel like one at times with family members and colleagues). My observations on CEO leadership come from my own life experiences, and professional experience. I know there are lots of so-called “leadership experts” but I think much of leadership is intuitive and requires intelligence and interpersonal skills.

I have worked for effective leaders in a variety of organizations. The best leaders are always those that inspire employees to work hard and work well. Another way of expressing this same feeling is that employees want to believe in their leaders. Great leaders are those who inspire employees to a broader mission – not just to provide effective legal services, build a great computer, or do something else well. A leader who inspires us to a broader purpose can be a great leader.

But what specific personality characteristics turn an average or good CEO into a great CEO, one who truly inspires an organization?

My list includes four personality traits – honesty, integrity, listening and empathy.

Honesty: A CEO who is honest communicates truthfully with the board, executives, managers and employees. If employees believe that a CEO is not truthful or only truthful for part of the time, the CEO cannot be an effective leader. A CEO who is perceived as untruthful loses all credibility to inspire and successfully promote a call to action to employees in a company.

Integrity: A CEO who has integrity refers to the CEO’s conduct. A CEO who acts with integrity inspires others with his or her own behavior. So, for example, a CEO who makes decisions with integrity will not cut-corners or decide to do something that may be unethical. A CEO committed to integrity will inspire others to embrace the same value. Employees who embrace integrity will not steal from the company, cheat on their reimbursements, and execute with excellence.

Listening: Confident CEOs are able to listen to others, always looking to improve whatever is being done. A CEO who understands the importance of listening knows that there are two vital purposes to the listening process. One is to collect and understand others’ ideas, concerns and motivations. The second is to communicate to the speakers that the CEO is listening and wants to hear from them. Employees want to be heard more than to persuade. It is surprising but humans want a chance to express themselves and then feel validation. A CEO who understands the listening process can accomplish these two important objectives.

Empathy: This is perhaps my favorite characteristic, one that defines successful CEOs and “successful” people. An effective leader has to be able to empathize. I would define this critical characteristic as the ability to understand a person’s beliefs, opinions or motivations by looking at the issue through the person’s eyes. It sounds trite but this strategy is a wonderful disciplined way of communicating and listening.

A CEO who can empathize with his/her managers and employees is able to understand their motivations, and can respond more appropriately. By understanding employees’ concerns, the CEO can make strategic decisions and develop effective strategies to implement such strategies.

A case study I read on CEO leadership provides an important example of effective leadership. A new CEO learned from conducting employee meetings that employees were upset about the condition of the company’s outside physical spaces. In response the CEO promised the employees to improve the physical plant at the company.

The CEO heard the concerns from the employees and decided to define an objective by which the CEO could be judged. The CEO chose an objective that he knew could be accomplished and embraced the idea as an important first step in gaining trust – employees could (and did) trust the CEO after he made good on his promise.

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