Learning to Lead – The Continuous Journey of the World’s Top CEOs

Ever wonder what separates a great CEO from a good one? It’s not just experience – it’s a continuous journey of learning and adaptation. While many CEOs learn by observing and emulating others, this alone isn't enough.

The Continuous Journey of the World’s Top CEOs

Ever wonder what separates a great CEO from a good one? It’s not just experience – it’s a continuous journey of learning and adaptation.

While it’s often assumed that CEOs learn primarily by observing and emulating others, this approach alone may not be sufficient. After all, if most CEOs simply learn by following in the footsteps of their predecessors, it stands to reason why the majority are only average performers. In reality, only a small percentage of CEOs consistently achieve top-tier results.

So let’s peel back the layers and check out what are some skills, habits, or traits that top CEOs have and use every day.

The CEOs Crusade to Succeed

The stakes are high for CEOs, regardless of their area of expertise. A study by McKinsey & Company reveals that “One-third to one-half of new CEOs fail within 18 months.” (The Leadership Traits of Successful CEOs, 2023). Another article by Forbes cites how research from the Corporate Executive Board estimates that 50-70% of executives fail within the first 18 months (Why Most New Executives Fail – And Four Things Companies Can Do About It, 2020)

These alarming statistics underscore the immense pressure CEOs face to hit the ground running and deliver results quickly.

With such a high failure rate, it’s no wonder that CEOs feel the constant need to perform at their peak. The weight of their responsibilities – driving strategy, making critical decisions, and steering their organizations through challenging times – can be overwhelming.

In this high-stakes environment, CEOs must possess a wide range of skills and traits to succeed.
To shed light on what it takes to be a top-performing CEO, let’s examine an article from Fellow.app (2023) which outlines ten essential skills that every CEO needs:

  • Clear communication
  • The ability to attract and retain employees
  • Market and customer knowledge
  • Strategic thinking and decisiveness
  • The ability to delegate
  • Approachability
  • Financial Knowledge
  • Attention to detail
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Growth mindset

The 10 Essential CEO Skills for Leadership Excellence in 2024 (fellow.app)

As you can see this is an extensive list that could benefit any new, aspiring, or even a seasoned CEO. Sometimes it helps to be reminded of all the necessary areas a CEO touches. And this article does just that in so many ways. But has this touched all areas that successful CEOs need in their toolbag? We think not.

With this thought in mind, I’d like to present (or add to) the already considerable list above.

Additional Skills to Elevate CEOs Above The Norm

As previously mentioned, it doesn’t matter if you’re new in your position of CEO or you’ve been at it a while. There’s always something to learn. The following are suggestions to enhance and empower any CEO on their journey to greatness.

Decisive Decision-Making

The ability to make swift, informed decisions is critical. Top CEOs often have to navigate complex situations under pressure. This means making the right call when it matters the most. Frequently, without complete information.

But what if you’re unsure what the right call should be? Well, that’s where a growth mindset comes into play. Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck believes a growth mindset is the belief that a person’s capabilities and talents can improve over time. And one of the best ways to cultivate a growth mindset begins with a positive mental attitude.

However, it also helps if you have inner strength and confidence that comes from a firm set of beliefs and principles. All combined will further cement a growth mindset.

But remember, just being able to make the decision is a statement in itself. It says you’ve made a commitment. And that speaks volumes about who you are and your belief in yourself. Then, trust your instincts that the decisions you make are the right ones.
The next skill or trait top CEOs need to express is…

decision making for ceos

Conceptual Skills

A CEO who displays conceptual skills or abilities will further advance any company. When a CEO uses their conceptual skills it allows them to understand complex scenarios and to develop creative solutions. There are three important conceptual skills that need to be explored:

Analytical Skills – This is where a CEO displays their ability to break down complex problems into more manageable parts. Plus, this person will have the ability to analyze problems and find logical solutions, due to seeing the whole picture.

Creative Thinking – Creative CEOs observe and recognize ways to generate new ideas and skillful solutions to problems. They flourish on challenges and approach them with their innovative mindset.

Visionary Thinking – These are the CEOs who anticipate trends and potential opportunities while keeping an eye on potential risks. Using their forward-thinking philosophy creates an enterprising environment.

So you see, conceptual skills has the ability to envision multiple areas (strategies, sales & marketing initiatives, systems, processes, etc.) that don’t exist yet but serve the needs of a stakeholder group.
Let’s take it a step further by visiting another quality that needs addressing…

Being A Visionary Leader

A CEO is a person who has a clear and compelling vision of where they want their organization to go. This is a vision not just about the future of their company but one that also fits into the larger industry and societal landscape.

This is where creativity and innovation come in handy. A visionary leader is a person who thinks in terms of “what if.” Top CEOs allow the creative side to be present throughout the building-out process of growing a company.

Along with creativity, you need to add curiosity into the mix. When these two traits are used together, great strides are achieved. And a company can benefit 10X.

But to fully benefit from decision-making, conceptual skills, and visionary leadership you need to add a healthy dose of…

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

Just as a top CEO needs to have a hefty dose of IQ, they also need an equal or greater dose of EQ.
When CEOs display high emotional intelligence, it shows that they are on top of their own emotions. This trait allows them to hear and better understand the people around them. Oftentimes without realizing it, all other stakeholders will have a greater sense of community with the CEO who has a high EQ. This creates strong relationships and positive attitudes.

All are greatly effective in building a strong company.

Additionally, when a CEO is strong in emotional intelligence and this is coupled with clear communication…well, expect to see growth both inside and outside of an organization.
But we’re not done yet. Another highly prized habit of top CEOs model is…


The business world is constantly changing. Top CEOs often thrive on this change. Top CEOs are flexible in their thinking. This allows them to see things on a bigger scale so that they can pivot their strategies at a moment’s notice.

The best reflection of this is when market conditions change. If a CEO isn’t flexible enough during a major market change, then expect some unpleasant reactions to the business.

Let’s take the above scenario of a change in a market condition a step further. A top CEO will not stop adapting to the current needs of the company. Instead, they will also be looking for any next steps the company needs to anticipate and prepare for further change.

That’s when adaptability becomes crucial for the future of the company. Ask any top CEO this question and be prepared to learn how important this skill is.

Finally, to round out additional skills top CEOs display, we can’t forget one that is center to growth for any person or company. And that is…

learning to adapt

Continuous Learning

It’s been said that the best CEOs are lifelong learners. People who are constantly seeking new knowledge, insights, and skills.

They often carve out time to read extensively. They engage with other thought leaders, while continuously engaging with their own stakeholders. This then helps them to remain open to new ideas and perspectives.

When a CEO embraces lifelong learning they realize that

“Continuous learning is the cornerstone of effective leadership. When a CEO cultivates a mindset of lifelong learning, they welcome innovation, stay well-informed, and prioritize personal and professional growth. All of which makes them better equipped to lead their organizations through change, drive innovation, and make informed decisions.”

Continuous Learning – The CEO Skills (rbnc.global)

What’s the one area you’re looking to grow in this year? If you have a ready answer then you are probably a person who practices continuous learning. If not, now is a great time to begin.

Putting It All Together

Becoming a top-performing CEO is an ongoing journey of growth and self-discovery. By continuously developing the key traits and skills you’ll not only set yourself apart from the competition but also position yourself to create lasting, positive change within your organization and beyond.

As you reflect on your own strengths and growth areas, choose one skill to focus on in the coming months. Embrace the process of learning and adaptation, knowing that each step forward is an opportunity to become the visionary leader your company needs.

The world is waiting for the impact only you can create – so stay curious, keep growing, and watch as you transform yourself and your organization in ways you never thought possible

Table of Contents