What makes a successful CEO? We analyzed 5 million leaders to find out

Cross-country skiers start during the Engadin Ski Marathon on the frozen Lake Sils near the village of Maloja March 10, 2013. More than 12,000 skiers participated in the 42.2 km (26.2 miles) race between Maloja and S-chanf near the Swiss mountain resort of St. Moritz. REUTERS/Michael Buholzer (SWITZERLAND - Tags: SPORT SKIING TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) FOR BEST QUALITY AVAILABLE SEE GM1E9AK1A0301 - BM2E93A14B901

'Successful leaders are masters of “competing competencies”' Image: REUTERS/Michael Buholzer

Clarke Murphy
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Leadership?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Leadership is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

What we look for in our leaders can change with every economic boom and bust. We dismiss certain characteristics as weaknesses in one period, only to value those same characteristics as strengths in the next cycle. I have seen this occur countless times during the 30 years of my career – as I’m sure you have too.

As interesting as it has been to watch these changes, it has been even more impressive to observe the evolution of leader assessment and selection advance from an informal effort to a much more scientific process.

Last year, my company Russell Reynolds Associates entered into a partnership with Hogan Assessments. We started working together to examine psychometric data from more than 5 million leaders. We wanted to take advantage of this huge trove of scientific data to better understand how to identify executives with both the potential to rise to the C-suite and with the highest likelihood of long-term success.

C-suite roles are challenging and often high-profile. Making a mistake can be costly. Reducing executive failure by finding leaders who are equipped to navigate uncertainty relieves a tremendous risk for a company.

What we found when going through our data was striking. Some of the personality characteristics that help leaders ascend to the C-suite may result in short-term positive performance. Yet these same characteristics can also lead to career derailment. Successful leaders are masters of “competing competencies” – pairs of psychometric traits that would appear to be at odds with each other. By being able to handle both traits, leaders magnify their abilities while minimizing their weaknesses. The competing competencies are especially clear in four areas:

1. Disruptive and pragmatic: An organization needs leaders to disrupt the status quo with innovation, but they also must be pragmatic about focus, priorities and the pace of innovation in their organization.

2. Risk-taking and reluctant: Good leaders take calculated risks and are opportunistic, but we also want them to show vigilance in order to avoid steering an organization off a cliff.

3. Heroic and vulnerable: Heroic leaders need to ensure that perseverance and grit do not turn into self-delusion. Leaders need to solicit enough input and counsel to make continuous improvements to themselves and their organization.

4. Galvanizing and connecting: Leaders must generate support with energy and inspiration, but they also need to know when to take a step back and share credit, promote the success of others and connect the organization to higher values and a mission.

Looking at these traits not only reduces risk when hiring the C-suite but also allows us to assess the C-suite as a whole and understand the dynamics of the group. This can help us to evaluate the culture of a company and align it with the company’s strategy. Naturally, these competing competencies can help plan for succession by identifying the next generation of C-suite members.

Have you read?

It is remarkable that we can look at information on 5 million leaders and, relatively easily and scientifically, analyse their psychometric data and see the patterns that emerge. Thirty years ago, we would never have dreamed of having that much information available to us, let alone being able to make sense of it all.

Leadership is complex, but, luckily, leader assessment and selection has never been as scientific or insightful as it is today. This level of insight will never go out of style.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
LeadershipJobs and the Future of Work
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Innovation Prize: Meet the next generation of changemakers

Natalie Pierce and Maria Sol Adaime Gabris

July 11, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Sign in
  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum