» Is Dullness Destiny?




In a recent op-ed piece, David Brooks cites various research indicating that most CEOs’ success is due to their execution and organizational abilities. These abilities translate into specific skills, such as attention to detail, persistence, efficiency and analytic diligence. Other significant qualities include emotional stability and conscientiousness. 


Brooks also states that researchers found that strong ‘people skills’ correlate loosely or NOT AT ALL (my emphasis) with success as a CEO. Those strong people skills include characteristics such as being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague and a great communicator.  Extroversion, agreeableness and openness to new experiences also failed to correlate to CEO success. 


I have worked with several CEOs, and I don’t necessarily agree that they excel at the first group of skills and are deficient in the second. The CEOs with whom I have worked are an amalgam of traits in both categories. However, the one trait they all have exhibited is that of accomplishment through persistence.


I have also observed that attention to detail, far from being a positive trait, can become an overused negative characteristic. Carried to an extreme, such detail-oriented executives micromanage. Worse still, they can dip down two or three levels in the organization to ask subordinates’ subordinates’ subordinates to drop everything and take on another detailed assignment. Such an action, of course, is more than attention to detail — it is ‘scatter shot’ and disorganized management.


Regardless of the accuracy of the research Brooks cites, it raises provocative questions regarding the type of coaches CEOs and other leaders should choose to help them get the results they want. Should they select a former CEO, who has gotten things done through all that persistence and determination? Or should they work with a behavioral coach who has a clinical background and can pinpoint obstacles that may combine the psychological, operational and interpersonal? 


I’m not sure of the answer, and I would love to hear from you coaches who are former CEOs. I know you’re out there! Would you share your stories of successes with clients (and, if you feel comfortable, share your failures as well)? I’d also like to know if you think folks like me, who have clinical backgrounds, provide value when we coach CEOs.


Finally, do you agree that Brooks’ latter bucket of  ‘people skills,’ such as extroversion, openness to new experience, and perhaps even emotional intelligence and empathy, are of little value to leaders?