The 4 Leadership Practices of Exceptional CEOs

When entrepreneurs start a company, they definitely think about product, customers and product-market fit. They focus on raising money, hiring and finding space for their small but growing team. They might start thinking about culture.

What they often forget to think about is the critical component of building their company: their personal leadership.

Here’s the truth: The moment you decide to found a company is the moment you need to start thinking about developing yourself as a leader. Rapidly. High-growth companies require high-growth CEOs.

Outstanding CEOs nourish these four qualities:

1. Self-leadership

Being an exceptional leader starts with building your own self-awareness. It requires you to pay attention and the courage to confront the unpretty truths about yourself.

Increasing your own self-awareness isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding. Ask yourself some questions and answer them honestly. You can journal about them or you can discuss them with someone you feel comfortable with.

Some good self-reflection questions:

  • What are the most important things to me?
  • What am I doing that’s working?
  • What am I doing that’s not working?
  • What do your trusted advisors, friends and colleagues say about you?
  • What is one quality you could evolve that would become a game-changer?

The more honest you can be, the more you can use this understanding of yourself to develop into an outstanding leader.

Ben Franklin kept a “balance sheet” of both the assets and liabilities of his personal traits. By keeping a running tally of his character, he believed he could build it over time.

The bottom line is you can’t develop yourself unless you know yourself. Invest in self-awareness to build your foundation of leadership.

2. “Learnership”

Outstanding CEOs know that leadership is an evolving skill and that to master it they have to continuously learn. Therefore, they commit to studying leadership right alongside their focus on new product releases, sales, and operations. They read books, they listen to podcasts, they seek out mentors. They experiment.

Related read: 5 Business Books I Wish I’d Read Sooner

First determine that you will devote time and energy to investing in your own learning. Carve out time on your calendar. Then think about the specific activities that will help you leverage your time best for learning. The things you do to learn may not involve your work life at all.

“To be an outstanding learner is to be an outstanding leader.”

One of the startup CEOs I coach takes time every Sunday to do a group activity that helps him learn a new skill and work with new people. He has learned archery, chess, and sculpture. Not only does that expand his perspective, but it also helps him learn more about his own group dynamics and leadership in a context where he is not the CEO. That has helped him fine-tune his leadership at work.

Track your progress by recording, for example, the number of books or podcasts you’re consuming every month, or how many times per month you have coffee with a peer specifically to discuss learning or personal growth.

To be an outstanding learner is to be an outstanding leader.

3. Dramaturgical leadership

Dramaturgical leadership simply means you realize that as a CEO you’re playing a role. Adapting to a role is a fundamental human condition: We do this in marriage and parenting, to name a few common experiences. New roles require adaptation—and failing to understand that is failing to fulfill your full expression as a CEO.

First make peace with the idea that you need to “act the part” of the CEO. Get in the habit of asking yourself “What would a great CEO do in this situation?” Think in advance about what role is needed for a given situation and practice that part when you’re in that situation.

Being a successful CEO requires accepting that it is a role to play.

4. Facilitative leadership

The best CEOs are facilitators who foster sound judgment and independent decision-making. Strong facilitative leaders unlock the minds, hands and hearts of the entire team, which by definition can do so much more than just your own mind faculties.

A few myths about facilitative leadership: It does not mean you, the CEO, abdicate all your decision-making authority. Facilitative leadership is not democracy, consensus, compromise or decision-by-committee.

“The best CEOs are facilitators who foster sound judgment and independent decision-making.”

Facilitative leadership is an attitude in which CEOs see their role as enabling others. They encourage decisions to be made by the people as close to the work as possible. They expect their executives to give their employees autonomy and coach them as needed.

Seek input and listen to opinions. Encourage others to talk things through without you. Delegate. Help people debrief and learn from all situations, good and bad.

Pick one of these qualities to nourish, and you’ll be amazed at the strides your leadership will take—and at the results you’ll achieve.

This article was first published on Inc., republished with permission in March 2020, and updated in July 2021.

More wisdom from Alisa Cohn

Alisa is a regular contributor to the OpenView blog. Her latest book From Start-up to Grown-up is available for pre-order.

Alisa Cohn
Alisa Cohn
Executive Coach

Alisa Cohn is the author of "From Start-up to Grown-up," and an executive coach who works with startup executives to help them develop the leadership skills they need to scale their companies successfully. She has worked with companies from very early stage to Fortune 50. Her clients include Venmo, Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Cisco and Dell. Click here to pre-order "From Start-up to Grown-up"
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