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The most overlooked trait of great CEOs

The most overlooked trait of great CEOs

By Jay Fehnel for Johan Advisors

In today’s business climate, it’s easy for executives to convince themselves that the only way to win is by adopting a heads-down, get-out-of-my-way, who-cares-about-collateral-damage leadership style.

Innovative CEOs are often portrayed in media coverage as independent, quirky, hyper-focused and unconcerned with much of anything beyond growth metrics.

That’s why I stopped in my tracks recently when I saw this straightforward opinion: “The best CEOs are also the most gracious CEOs. 100% correlation.” 

That assessment came in a tweet from Jason M. Lemkin (@jasonlk), the co-founder and former CEO of EchoSign, now a venture capitalist and software-as-a-service guru.  He’s someone with a large sample size of CEOs to consider when making that judgement.

His opinion caught my attention because it’s so rare.  Investors, leaders, journalists and educators hardly ever suggest a correlation between graciousness and business success.

Personally, I don’t regularly use the word “graciousness” but I include it as part of a concept I think about often: “courtesy”. According to Merriam Webster, a courteous person displays some combination of polished manners, respect for others, consideration, cooperation, and generosity.

I’ve seen the same correlation between courteous leaders and success that Lemkin has. Over the short term, I’ve seen jerks, and even sociopaths, do pretty well for themselves and their companies.  Over the long term, though, the best CEO’s I’ve witnessed could all be classified as “WWC” - Winning While Courteous.

Why Courtesy Matters

For me, courtesy matters because I’ve chosen it as a personal core value (albeit one that I often fall short of). The Golden Rule just makes sense to me as the best way for us to get along on a small planet and show some gratitude for being here.

If you’d rather take a more results-based look at how courtesy increases leadership effectiveness, consider these benefits:

1. Courtesy attracts the best people to your orbit. A former boss and I often joked that we always knew what other people were thinking -- and the thought was: “How does this affect me?” Your customers, employees, prospective hires, investors and others are constantly noticing how you treat other people because they know instinctively you’ll eventually treat them that way, too. The best people can choose where they invest their career and their assets -- and they usually choose to be around people who are fair and kind and make them feel important.

2. Courtesy signals that you set high standards.  Being courteous takes forethought, restraint and empathy.  When you take the time to be genuinely courteous, you’re showing you’ve got the morals, discipline and energy to set high standards for your conduct and your company’s.  When you go the extra mile to show kindness or respect you’re signalling to others that you expect them to set high standards, too.

3. Courtesy lowers costs and risk. When you take the time to treat others fairly you’re lowering the risk of creating an angry employee, former employee or partner. Over time, courtesy reduces the amount of time and money spent on arbitration, legal fees and public relations. Virtue may be its own reward but it has a financial ROI, too.

4. Courtesy motivates others to give their best effort. A fellow executive coach recently told me about a company whose results were suffering after a management shuffle. When he asked employees what had changed, several said, “Well, when the old leaders were here, I would walk through walls for them. Not anymore.” People don’t walk through walls for a paycheck or a strategic plan; they do it for leaders who have earned deep loyalty. Courtesy creates loyalty and motivation.

Building Your Courtesy Muscles

The primary requirement for becoming a more courteous leader is a commitment to increasing your empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.  Here are some easy ways to raise your Courtesy Quotient:

1. Anticipate others’ needs. Think like the general managers of five-star hotels. They anticipate their guests’ needs and try to meet them in the most personalized way possible and with great care. You can do the same by supporting your colleagues in a way that’s meaningful to them, without them asking.

2. Brush up on your manners. Let’s get real. If an etiquette expert watched you in action for a week, would you want to read her report? Just a little attention to things like saying “Good morning”, apologizing for being late, or remembering a new employee’s name can go a long way towards helping others feel respected. What’s one thing you can do today that might make someone go home and tell their family how thoughtful you were?

3. Assume positive intent. One way to respect others is to give them the benefit of the doubt, even when you’re upset. Rather than assume your colleagues are incompetent or petty, assume they want a good outcome, too. Start by understanding their viewpoint and asking for their help. There is room for disagreement and debate; just keep the atmosphere positive and focus on the outcome, not the people.

4. Give the same level of respect you’d want.  It’s easy for busy leaders to justify not giving their team the same level of respect they’d expect themselves. You may think you’re too busy to explain yourself fully. You might point out that your workforce is “at will” as a justification for plowing ahead. However, I’ve found justifications have a short shelf life. Knowing you did the right thing feels good for a long time.

5. Adopt a spirit of generosity. At the heart of courtesy is a willingness to give by putting others’ needs ahead of your own.  Even if you don’t expect a return on the effort, you can trust the return will come. Wharton professor Adam Grant, in his book “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives our Success” has documented how generosity is increasingly becoming a predictor of career success.

Being courteous may not result in a straight path to the CEO job or other senior leadership role. You can be sure, though, that courtesy will increase your odds of getting there and succeeding when you do.


Jay Fehnel is an Executive Coach and Strategy Advisor for C-suite leaders, senior management teams and their high-potential successors. He helps executives define and achieve their professional and personal growth goals. Jay is principal and owner of Johan Advisors.