Leadership Styles from Successful CEOs

Feb 27, 2024 | CEO Best Practices, CEO Success, Leadership

Every executive has their unique leadership style. But have you ever wanted to know how the most successful CEOs lead their teams? In this article, you will learn several leadership styles of some of the most successful, high-profile CEOs including Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey, Mark Zuckerberg, and many more.

As reported by Ladders on February 20th, 2020, by CW Headley.

12 leadership styles of the most successful CEOs ever

Most industry insiders draw a hard line between two fundamental leadership styles: prestige and dominance. These broad strokes define the majority of iconic visionaries, but closer inspection reveals an alarming degree of gradations between each.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, effective leadership is reflected by a stream of principles.  Subtle alterations in policy, posture, and office culture have major effects on the way authority can be conveyed.

“Converging evidence suggests that high rank is communicated through various nonverbal behaviors,” the authors write in the new paper. “Given the divergent messages that prestigious and dominant leaders need to send in order to attain and retain their place in the social hierarchy, theoretical accounts would suggest that individuals use distinct sets of nonverbal behaviors to communicate these two forms of high rank.”

With this new paper in mind, Ladders unpacked 12 key leadership styles employed by the heads of successful corporations. On balance, the most effective techniques air on the side of one of the two approaches explored in the new study.

From the report: “Specifically, prestige, or the attainment of rank through earned respect, and dominance, or the use of intimidation and force to obtain power, are communicated from different head positions (i.e., tilted upward vs. downward), smiling behaviors (i.e., presence vs. absence of a symmetrical smile), and different forms of bodily expansion (i.e., subtle chest expansion vs. more grandiose space-taking).”

1. Transformational leadership

Transformational leadership, made famous by Microsoft founder and CEO, Bill Gates, is a form of prestige governance.

Transformational leaders try to inspire their team by appealing to each member as an individual as opposed to a dutiful cog. If an employee’s professional ambitions align in some way with their corporation’s vision, they’ll be more likely to bring their unique sensibilities to every venture. This management style requires a great deal of tact because it steers clear of confrontation.

Gates has been said to avoid conflict in professional contexts. Diplomacy is needed to inspire loyalty and dedication, but it can just as easily diminish the perception of authority. How does the tech magnate account for this potential liability?

He reserves his passion for ideals and the central objective of his company. When a leader’s vision remains both clear and consistent, the daily tasks are constantly changing to accommodate, driving productivity and net profit. On keeping his team engaged, a 30-year-old Gates once said:

“The work we’re doing. It’s not like, you know we’re doing the same thing all day long. We go into our offices and think up new programs, we get together in meetings…. we talk to customers, there’s so much variety and there are always new things going on. And I don’t think they will ever come a time when that will be boring.”

2. Vulnerable leadership

Ursula Burns, the chairman and CEO of VEON,  senior adviser to Teneo, and non-executive director of Diageo since April 2018, makes a point to let her staff “see her sweat.”

Although Burns is a figure lauded for her spirited climb to success, the mogul believes company morale can’t persist unless leaders remain vulnerable and relatable to their employees. If anything, good work is perceived more admirably when the gears are available for all to see.

“We have to know each other. We as a team make up the whole. Me, alone, would leave a ton of blind spots, ” Burns said in a recent interview. 

“I have invested in this company. I’ve been there for 35 years. This is the long run. We need both missionaries and mercenaries at work. Some of that in a leadership team is OK. But if we have a leadership team where half of the people are there for the short term, it’s not very good.” As for diversity in leadership, she added: “I think we should bring as many differences to the table as possible. They are to be emphasized.”

3. The learner

Co-founder, CEO and product architect of Tesla, Inc., Elon Musk motivates his team with the promise of new horizons.

The SpaceX engineer welcomes the potential for failure and expects his staff does the same, saying in a recent interview, “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing you are not innovating.”

Although Musk demonstrates fidelity to his vision, he’s a big proponent of receiving evaluations from his colleagues, irrespective of their rung on the ladder. How can you expect workers to devote themselves to your mission if they’re not permitted to have a say in operations?

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better. I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.” Musk explained in a recent press statement. 

4. Operational leadership

Marilyn A. Hewson is the Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation.

When asked about how she maintains focus within her work branches, Hewson said it came down to strategic monitoring. She segments every function of her firm with tangible metrics. Starting at the very bottom, she determines what is needed of herself and informs her staff on what she needs from them. The goal post is always changing, and the team is always kept up to speed in regards to their latest objectives.

“What kind of attrition are we experiencing, and where are we relative to moving people into leadership rules.  You have to monitor things and you have to set metrics. That’s making a difference. Setting the tone at the top with metrics. It permeates all the way down through the organization. It’s expected and that’s what we focus on to take the business forward,” Hewson said during a sit down with Catalyst.com.

5.The intuitive leader

“It’s really easy to imitate the bad parts of Steve. He brought some incredibly positive things along with that toughness …Steve is a very singular case, where the company really was on a path to die, and it goes and becomes the most valuable company in the world with products that are really amazing. There won’t be many stories like that,” Bill Gates once said of the late Apple CEO, Steve Jobs.

Jobs relied heavily on intuition to govern everything from picking new talent to deciding which horses to back in the tech circus.

Working for Jobs necessitated a tentative belief in destiny. His frequent gut impulsive decisions lead to a modest stack of failures and a high turnover rate, but the scope of his success preserved his legacy and validated the countless votaries that followed him onto shaky territory.

6. The participative leader

Richard Branson is an investor, author, philanthropist, and founder of the Virgin Group.

On several occasions, Branson has cited a democratic approach to team management over a my way or the highway method.

When a team member proposes an idea that doesn’t ally perfectly with his own process, Branson makes an effort to give said idea its day in court. If the majority is in agreement, the motion passes and is then judged by its impact.

“I never learned the rules in the first place. To change the game is at the heart of what Virgin stands for, so the company culture has always been: Don’t sweat it: rules were meant to be broken.”

7. Value-Driven leadership

Oprah Winfrey’s rise to icon-hood is defined by its humble origins. A throng of rejections has made her sympathetic to the plight of working-class Americans.  More than metrics and performance, Winfrey chooses to incentivize her team with ethics and values.

In her estimation, this approach to leading a team elevates the purpose of output by making monetary compensation a tertiary consideration. If you commit to the principles and projects, your love for everything else will follow.

“When you’re doing the work you’re meant to do, it feels right and every day is a bonus, regardless of what you’re getting paid,” Oprah once wrote. “I had no idea that being your authentic self could make me as rich as I’ve become. If I had, I’d have done it a lot earlier.

8. The pragmatic leader

Very much unlike many of the previously mentioned executives, former president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association, Magic Johnson believes it’s important for an effective leader to know when to quit.

When you’re the head of a corporation, every decision you make on behalf of your company ripples down the chain. This means every risk has to be surveyed for its potential to negatively impact workers who can’t afford to take a hit that the top dogs can.

When employees know that their leader has everyone’s success in mind, they’ll be that much more likely to ensure goals are met and that much less discouraged in the wake of failure.

“I have to tell you, I’m proudest of my life off the court. There will always be great basketball players who bounce that little round ball, but my proudest moments are affecting people’s lives, effecting change, being a role model in the community, Johnson said in an interview.

9. The Aggressive encourager

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is known to insist on constant innovation from his workers-balancing three core leadership styles to do so (autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire).

By his own admission, he doesn’t always consult his board before making major decisions. He does, however, welcome the contrary view when it’s presented.

No one is muzzled based on position. Those who introduce novel ideas and complete their allotted tasks enjoy as much stake in strategy as everyone else.

“By giving people, the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent. The basis of our partnership strategy and our partnership approach: We build social technology. They provide the music. I think a simple rule of business is, if you do the things that are easier first, then you can actually make a lot of progress,” Zuckerberg explained.

10. Steel disposition

As the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger feels it is imperative that leaders never let their team see them shaken in the face of failure.

In his recent book. The Ride of a LifetimeLessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney, the janitor turned businessman revealed the core tenants of successful management.

He expressed a “relentless pursuit of perfection,” on behalf of himself and his staff-writing in his book:

“True integrity―a sense of knowing who you are and being guided by your own clear sense of right and wrong―is a kind of secret leadership weapon. If you trust your own instincts and treat people with respect, the company will come to represent the values you live by.”

11. The micromanager

According to  Dealbook’s Evelyn Ruseli, Zynga Founder, Mark Pincus “obsessively tracks analytics for all staff, sets harsh deadlines, and aggressively pushes his employees to meet them.”

Back when he was voted CEO of the year, he attributed his success to an emphasis on experimentation, refinement, and repetition.

“My approach is that you have to earn the respect of people you work with,” Pincus said on the topic of a relentless pursuit of goals.

Persistence and efficiency define his management style and it seems to work more than it doesn’t.

12. Humility and accountability

Safra A. Catz is an American billionaire banker and CEO of Oracle Corporation. 

Catz holds everyone involved in Oracle’s operations accountable-including herself.

When seeking new talent, Catz privileges emotional intelligence over technical acumen. She believes that performance can always be improved if collaboration survives on an open dialogue.

“Employees who don’t exhibit emotional intelligence frequently lose sight of the team objective, becoming caught up in their own personal agendas. We have built a culture of problem-solving, not finger-pointing, and we want team members who approach their jobs with the same mindset,” Catz told Forbes recently. 

Additional Leadership Resources

Emotional Intelligence in CEO Leadership

CEO Bookshelf: Must-Reads for Business Leaders in 2024 & Beyond

CEO Personal Development: Balancing Work and Well-Being

2024 CEO Sentiment Study


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