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What Great Leaders Do Differently

In the May-June 2017 Harvard Business Review (HBR), authors Botelho, Powell, Kincaid and Wang wrote an article titled “What Sets Successful CEOs Apart”. What fascinated me about their research and article was that, despite a difference in approach and a slight difference in language, there was a high level of overlap between their findings, our research at Voice Project, and a long history of research in psychology.

Botelho et al describe research involving over 2,000 CEOs, all of whom were assessed using a detailed, structured interview about their career, educational background, history of performance appraisals, patterns of behaviour and decisions, and business results. The core focus of the HBR article was to describe the behaviours that differentiated successful from less successful CEOs.

Leadership Capabilities

The researchers highlight 4 capabilities that clearly set successful CEOs apart. The authors described these as:

  1. DECISIVE - They make, communicate and act upon decisions more frequently, faster, and with conviction. They are willing to make decisions, often when there is considerable uncertainty, by drawing upon their strategic plans, experience and knowledge. They have a bias for action.
  2. ENGAGING - They build relationships with and gain buy-in from their key stakeholders including executives, staff, and other critical external stakeholders. They understand the stakeholders’ needs, align stakeholder behaviours with the CEOs' goals, carefully manage their own communications and behaviours to role model desired behaviours, and are quick in managing conflict when needed.
  3. ADAPTIVE - CEOs face considerable uncertainty in their decision-making, and constantly changing markets, politics, technology and social trends. As such, they must demonstrate curiosity, a growth mindset, an openness to feedback, and a willingness to quickly recognise and react to mistakes and out-of-date initiatives.
  4. RELIABLE - Successful CEOs show strong organisation and planning skills, they follow through on commitments, and they are predictable and err on the side of achieving smaller consistently positive results rather than risking large variations in outcomes.

Enjoy - The 5th Capability

Although the language is slightly different, these 4 characteristics align with 4 of the 5 behaviours I outlined in my earlier article “5 Behaviours to Assess in a Leadership Capability Framework and 360”.

Voice Project Leadership Capability Framework

In that article, I described research Voice Project conducted through Macquarie University in which we identified 5 core leadership capabilities. 4 of those 5 core capabilities (Voice, Connect, Innovate and Organise, respectively) overlap with the 4 capabilities identified in the HBR article.

Based on Voice Project’s research, the one additional capability we’d add to the 4 identified by Botelho et al is “Enjoy”.


  1. ENJOY - This capability refers to managing one’s own stress, health and wellbeing. Effective leaders enjoy their work, are resilient when faced with inevitable stress, and they manage their health and work-life conflicts to ensure sustainable strong work performance.

You might note that at Voice Project we’ve used some poetic licence to label these 5 capabilities in a way that fits the acronym VOICE (Voice, Organise, Innovate, Connect, Enjoy). These are the high-level capabilities that we assess using our VOICE 360 survey.

Ongoing Research

I should highlight that neither Voice Project nor Botelho et al can claim precedence in identifying these capabilities. We’re simply re-discovering and validating a long history of research in psychology regarding the “Big Five” personality characteristics. The language used in psychology is a little more esoteric (extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and emotional stability). Nevertheless, the overlap is strong. HR and management professionals can benefit greatly from understanding these critical categories of human behaviour and their impact upon the workplace.

For a copy of Voice Project’s research paper you can go to the publisher’s website here or contact me at peter.langford@voiceproject.com.

For more information about Voice Project’s leadership 360 services, you can email me or contact our office on 1800 8 VOICE or enquiries@voiceproject.com.

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