9 traits of a stand-out CEO


LEON AYO, President of the British Chamber of Business in Southern Africa
Date: 28 August 2019

We live in interesting times. Economies worldwide are on very shaky ground and South Africa is facing a catalogue of well documented risks and crises. Never has it been more important to have robust, nimble leadership in place at every level of society.


In the business world, some traditional leadership styles, for instance the authoritarian approach, are obsolete. Today’s employees need to be inspired and proud of their organisation’s leadership, culture and vision. If they don’t buy into you, as a leader, they are extremely hard to lead… And today’s CEOs need to think on their feet, making snap decisions where necessary, while staying true to their vision and strategy.


Working closely with so many CEOs over the years, it is my opinion that the following nine traits are what makes a truly successful modern leader:

  • Resilience: Leaders must be able to bounce back intellectually, physically and emotionally. There will always be knocks along the way – how you respond is what sets you up for success or failure.
  • Vision: The ability to define and communicate a clear vision and value set for your organisation that cascades successfully through all levels is critical. As is the ability to stick to the vision, while resetting the course when necessary.
  • People-centred: Lead by example, and take care of your team – and they will take care of your mission, organisation and clients. Having compassion for others is a trait that allows you to make a positive impact on the lives of your employees. Being people-centerd will contribute immeasurably to a positive, happy culture.
  • Optimism: Positivity in the workplace leads to increased productivity. Negative people can be a drain on any organisation. And try to keep your own bad moods out of the office.
  • Principles: Don’t let your desire to win compromise who you are. A moral compass and strong set of principles are essential when steering a large organisation.
  • Innovative and challenging: The world is constantly changing – being brave enough to venture in new directions is critical for continued success.
  • Courage: Be bold in your planning and unafraid. Challenge the paradigm, take calculated risks, and learn from mistakes.
  • Communicate openly: How we communicate as CEOs is critical because the distance between CEO and employee is so much shorter these days – an employee can communicate with the chief exec via a tweet. While staying authentic (if social media isn’t your thing, forcing it can come across as quite transparent), make sure you stay relevant and current in your communication style.
  • Culturally sensitive: South Africans are very proud of leaders like Mark Shuttleworth and Elon Musk who are among the most successful leaders the world over. To succeed as a leader, you need the ability to lead an organisation anywhere in the world – but sensitivity to cultural difference is vital.


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