Critical Factors for Success and Failure in CEO Leadership

A CEO's role is akin to the captain of a ship. They are tasked with setting the course and ensuring that the entire crew is working cohesively to reach the destination. This involves transforming a vision or strategy into tangible results - a task that is easier said than done. A vision without execution is just hot air, and it is in the execution phase that many CEOs encounter significant obstacles.

The challenges CEOs face during this transformative process can be multifaceted. They range from clear communication and coordination, navigating conflicting personalities and priorities within their own Executive Leadership Team (ELT), to creating a cohesive culture.

In this article, I aim to delve deeper into these issues and highlight a few examples from industry leaders as well as my own experience as an Executive Leadership Coach and my research on Self-leadership.

1. Communication and Coordination

One of the most crucial elements in executing a vision is clear and effective communication. The CEO's message needs to resonate with every level of the organization. In this regard, consider the case of Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. When he took over the company in 2014, Microsoft was struggling with a stagnant business model and declining market share. Nadella's vision was to transform Microsoft into a cloud-first, mobile-first company. This was a significant shift and required buy-in from everyone in the company. Nadella's clear and persistent communication about this new direction helped get all employees on board and resulted in a remarkable turnaround for Microsoft.

However, there have been instances where CEOs have struggled with these challenges, leading to less successful outcomes. The story of Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie at BlackBerry illustrates a failure in timely communication and adaptation when faced with the challenge of the iPhone.

When Ron Johnson took over as CEO of J.C. Penney in 2012, he tried to transform the company by eliminating sales and coupons but instead left customers confused leading to a significant decline in sales. The lesson here is that a vision, no matter how brilliant, cannot be executed without clear and effective communication with all stakeholders.

During the pandemic, I worked closely with a number of CEOs to frame their communication and adjust their styles to the situation. Leaders usually understand the importance of Executive Presence, projecting gravitas and poise under pressure, but sometimes they forget, it also means reading the room!

2. Managing Conflicting Personalities and Priorities

Reading the room means that CEOs must deal with the conflict of personalities and priorities within their ELT. Steve Jobs, the legendary CEO of Apple, was known for his ability to manage conflicting personalities and align them with his vision. Jobs was able to bring together a team of highly talented yet diverse individuals and inspire them to create products that transformed multiple industries.

CEOs often fail to execute because they didn't get buy-in from key stakeholders or from different agendas from within their own ELT.

Marissa Mayer, the former CEO of Yahoo, did not have a cohesive, well-articulated strategy, resulting in a lack of buy-in within the organization. She tried to implement various disparate initiatives that seemed like one-off mandates, leading to a conflict of priorities and flawed execution

3. Perseverance in the Face of Challenge

Another critical quality for a CEO in transforming a vision into reality is perseverance, the quality of doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.

Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, provides a classic example. When Schultz first proposed the concept of selling brewed coffee in his stores, he faced considerable resistance from the board. Undeterred, Schultz persevered with his vision, ultimately transforming Starbucks into a global brand synonymous with coffee culture.

Shakespeare understood this quality of leadership, when in his play, Henry IV, he wrote:

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

4. A Culture of Self-leadership

There's no denying that CEOs have one of the toughest jobs on the planet. They are tasked with navigating complex landscapes, driving innovation, and delivering results that impact not just the bottom line, but the lives of countless individuals. However, despite the myriad of resources, and capabilities at their disposal, the harsh reality is that CEOs often fail.

The reason? A critical oversight in cultivating a crucial skill: Self-Leadership (Bryant & Kazan 2012).

Self-Leadership is the practice of intentionally influencing your thoughts, feelings, and actions toward achieving your objectives. It's the first step to becoming an effective leader, because how can we lead others if we cannot first lead ourselves?

Applying self-leadership, being clear about ownership, responsibility, and accountability is not only about the growth of the CEO, it sets the tone for the whole organization.

When the ELT also practices self-leadership and role-model the values of the organization, the culture becomes tangible and contributes to success.

 While the journey to effective self-leadership is deeply personal, Effective self-leaders engage with coaches and mentors, process feedback and seek feedforward.


In the forward of The New Leadership Playbook (Bryant 2022), the CEO of Planful shares his experience of being coached on self-leadership:

"Self-leadership has produced results I had no idea were possible. I have grown enormously as an executive: my relations with my managers and staff are far more harmonious; I have been able to coach my team through significant personal development."

Feel free to contact me if you would like to learn more about developing self-leadership, a self-leadership culture, or a motivational leadership speaker for your next event.





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