In the 2008 book Becoming a Resonant Leader, the authors use neurological and psychological research to demonstrate the contagious nature of a leader’s mood. The authors write that, when issues arise, if the CEO is angry, fearful, or uncertain, those feelings will permeate through the company. On the flip side, if CEOs look for opportunity, have hope, and show resolve, the organization will follow suit.

Duke Energy’s Lynn Good shares that same sentiment as a kind of epiphany. “It’s always showtime,” she declares. “I think one of the things that I probably didn’t appreciate fully before is, even in dark moments, I have to express optimism internally and externally, because the team isn’t going to believe we can get through it if I don’t.”

Marjorie Yang, a leader at Esquel, a textile manufacturer, reinforces the importance of showing up with a positive attitude. “My job is to drive away fear and frustration,” she says. “Fear is the worst enemy of any business. If I come into the office with a positive spirit, it uplifts everyone else. As a leader, my job is to maintain confidence in the future and radiate that confidence.”

Taking such a stance doesn’t mean ignoring the facts of one’s current reality. “My leadership mantra, which I think about literally every day,” says American Express CEO, Ken Chenault, “is that the role of a leader is to define reality and give hope. I paraphrased it from Napoleon, but I always add the caveat that I don’t want to wind up like Napoleon! It’s the simplest definition of leadership. Defining reality is very challenging. It requires a level of transparency and courage to articulate what is the truth, what are the facts. But that isn’t enough. What are the tactics? What are the strategies? What are the reasons why people should be hopeful? That focus on defining reality and giving hope is something that I’ve used to guide me as a leader.”

As Chenault alludes to, giving hope can’t be artificial: It’s the role of the CEO to find a genuine reason to believe, otherwise employees pick up on the incongruence between being and doing. “I always see the glass half-full—I’m an optimist by nature. It doesn’t matter how difficult the situation is, because there is always a solution,” Adidas’s Herbert Hainer shares. “Let’s talk about the solution, not the problem. When you have this mindset, it spills over to other people. Also, when you’re artificially motivated, people realize that. If you falsely claim, ‘Hey, I am so motivated,’ and then appear lethargic, your words are meaningless.”

JP Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon talks about how he confronted reality while providing hope in his early days as CEO of Bank One. While talking with his team, he was brutally honest: “You guys talk about morale. You have done so many things in the name of morale. But everyone in the company knows we’re political, bureaucratic, and losing. Morale’s going to stay very low until we’re a good company.” At the same time, Dimon gave hope by bringing them the right people to fix the problems, and letting them know, “From now on, we’re here because we’re going to become the best.”

Andrew Wilson at Electronic Arts believes that organizations today look to their CEOs not just for professional guidance, but also for personal, spiritual, and philosophical support. Sometimes, it just takes showing a bit of humanity to inspire the troops. During the COVID-19 pandemic when people had to work remotely and Wilson was hosting a Zoom meeting with 7,000 employees, Wilson’s five-year-old son walked in the room and wanted him to make a paper airplane. Wilson paused the call and made him a paper airplane. “At the time,” he recalls, “I just did it because that’s what I’d do as a father. It took 30 seconds, and it was all good. Afterward, people reached out and said, ‘Thank you. You just gave us permission to be parents. You just gave us permission to spend the time.’

“These moments,” says Wilson, “are ones when you do things naturally that empower or inspire your organization. When I speak to friends of mine who are great CEOs, the things I hear about aren’t how big the company is, how high the share price is, how much money they make, or how important they are to global GDP. What I hear is how they make their people feel. That’s the legacy of a great CEO.”

Best-selling American writer Kurt Vonnegut famously coined the phrase, “I am a human being, not a human doing.” Indeed, when most people take a quiet moment to reflect on what leaders they’re most inspired by, the answer rarely seems based on leaders’ specific acts of “doing” but rather, the nature of their “being.” This is why the best CEOs strive for continual clarity as to who they want and need to be in the role.

The starting point is to connect with one’s convictions and to stay authentic to a set of core beliefs regardless of the circumstance. At the same time, the best are willing to adapt their leadership style to suit what the company needs from them, as long as it doesn’t violate their core beliefs. To make such a shift, they proactively seek feedback since they’re unlikely to receive honest and constructive advice otherwise. All the while, they ensure employees have hope for the future. We’ve now discussed how CEOs approach the doing and being aspects of personal effectiveness. We’ll conclude our discussion by stepping back and seeing how the best CEOs keep their role in perspective.

Excerpt adapted from CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets that Distinguish the Best Leaders from the RestCopyright © 2022 by Carolyn Dewar, Scott Keller & Vikram Malhotra. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Carolyn Dewar is a senior partner in McKinsey & Company’s San Francisco office and coleads the firm’s global CEO Excellence service line. She is a coauthor with Scott Keller and Vikram Malhorta on their book CEO Excellence.

Scott Keller is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Southern California office and coleads the firm’s global CEO Excellence service line.

Vikram (Vik) Malhotra is a senior partner in McKinsey’s New York office and is the longest-tenured member of the firm. 

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