The Most Valuable Trait of Highly Successful CEOs
Smarts are key, but don't let studies and stereotypes keep you from reaching for the stars.
The most valuable trait among successful CEOs? IBM’s AI supercomputer Watson says it's intellect,, according to job site Paysa. Tell us something we don’t know, Watson, like why the brainiacs at IBM can’t figure out how to stop the company’s five-year revenue, profit and share price slide. Now that would be brilliant.
For what it’s worth, there is something to Watson’s conclusion. I’ve never known a super-successful executive or business leader who wasn’t super-smart, and that’s going back decades in Silicon Valley, where you can’t walk down the street without bumping into at least two or three bona fide geniuses.
The question is, what does that mean to ordinary people who aren’t born with stratospheric IQs? Forget our hopes and dreams of making it big? Don’t experience, work ethic, motivation and tenacity count for something? And what about intuition -- the much talked-about gut feel that everyone says you should trust?
Sure, intellect is a pretty big deal when it comes to achieving business success, but so are all those other factors. While genetics do play a role in intelligence, more of it is learned than most people realize. The same is true of most factors that determine the outcome of your career.
Classical definitions aside, intellect describes your ability to reason objectively and solve problems and your capacity for knowledge. When it comes to intelligence, you are born with a certain potential, but how far you go in realizing that potential is based on a host of other factors, including health, upbringing, experience and behavior.
For example, if you’re particularly hungry for knowledge, that’s a big plus. If your drive is encouraged and facilitated by parents and teachers, all the better. Much of our ability to solve problems and think critically comes from education and experience. If that weren’t the case, your resume wouldn’t count for beans in a job hunt.
You're born with DNA, but 99.5 percent of it is common among all humans. Just a tiny fraction of our genetic programming is responsible for all differences in human traits. In other words, we’re far more alike than different. And we’re all born with clean slates and dynamic neural networks. Everything you experience and learn has the potential to create new neural connections that increase your “intellect.”
A great irony is that smart systems like Watson, Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri learn more or less the same way you do, courtesy of a hot new field of AI called "deep learning." They’re designed with neural networks that mimic the human brain, adaptive programming that allows them to learn and access to enormous amounts of data in the cloud. The more they learn and experience, the smarter they become. Just like you.
Which brings us to your other brain, the non-thinking one. The limbic system is responsible for human survival, including your response to emotional stimuli. It regulates adrenaline response to fear and encourages survival behavior through powerful neurotransmitters like Dopamine and Serotonin.
The limbic system’s functions are largely subconscious, but it works in tandem with your thinking brain or cortex to provide feelings that play a big role in your behavior. Whenever you make a decision based on intuition or instinct, that’s not your intellect but your gut or limbic system at work.
While successful CEOs like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were undoubtedly endowed with plenty of smarts, they also possessed other traits and talents that bolstered and complemented their intellects. For example, they were all remarkably driven and focused on their work, to the point of obsession.
In a 1995 interview, Jobs said, “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.” As a young man, Jobs spent many months living in India, practicing Buddhism and honing his instincts, which played a critical role in the creation of Apple’s iconic product and brand.
The thing is, I’ve known lots of smart people who, for whatever reason, never reached their potential. Some had more book smarts than common sense. Others lacked the drive, failed to take risks or had emotional issues. It’s sort of a mixed bag. And I know that plenty of the 11 million millionaires in America are not intellectual giants.
The important thing is to not let studies, stereotypes and what anyone else says keep you from reaching for the stars. Maximize your strengths, minimize your weaknesses and take what you were born with as far as it will take you. No matter what anyone says these days, life is and always has been what you make of it.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.