Grilled cheese and all-nighters: what really counts in a CEO 1


There is a rumour that Warren Buffet went to a fifteen-course Japanese banquet and ate nothing – because he only eats spaghetti, hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. But do CEOs need to be charismatic, people-pleasing demagogues just because an empire rests on their shoulders?

Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen recently completed a study called “Which C.E.O. Characteristics and Abilities Matter?” In it, they looked at 316 CEOs and their companies’ performances, and discovered that people skills have little or nothing to do with running awesome companies.

The traits we build through training and socialisation – in other words, listening, building others up in the team, enthusiasm and communication – seem not to matter as far as the market is concerned. The market wants incremental efficiency gains, not pats on the back.

What matters more in a CEO is emotional stability, snappy organisational skills and making and following through on dependable plans. Attention to detail is also important, as well as persistence, efficiency, and an analytic mind that commands tireless concentration. That’s pulling all-nighters.

And the more famous CEOs become, the less effective their work ethic seems to be. According to Ulrike Malmendier and Geoffrey Tate, it seems that award-winning CEOs underperform, both relative to their prior performance and relative to less successful CEOs, the more famous they become. A case in point might be Steve Jobs, whose mysterious illness and absence has arguably resulted in Apple’s share price downgrade of late.

David Brooks argues that in America CEOs and politicians do not blend well, because CEOs don’t possess powers of self-expression and self-exploration, which is almost the playground of the politician. I’d argue that in South Africa the case is vastly different, for a number of linguistic and historical reasons.

I wonder whether one of our future Presidents is pursuing an MBA or working his way up the ranks in corporate SA this minute…

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One thought on “Grilled cheese and all-nighters: what really counts in a CEO

  • ansiefourie

    I analised articles in a local management periodical a while ago and concluded that the characteristics of successful CEOs were described mostly in terms of visionary leadership and innovation. The results of a survey, which was conducted online on the Global Leaders Africa summit website and reflected the views of business people regarding leadership in Africa, was reported on in one issue of the magazine. The development and empowerment of people was considered the most important leadership competency in African business. This is what the participants expected of leaders and not necessarily the reality.