Leadership Lessons from the “Corner Office”

Leadership is full of paradoxes, and other takeaways from interviews with over 500 corporate CEOs. How do these findings resonate for nonprofit leaders, or how is nonprofit leadership different?

Adam Bryant, New York Times columnist, recently completed the last of 525 “Corner Office” interviews with corporate CEOs, conversations that took place over a decade. Instead of asking about their businesses he asked about them, about their thinking and their values, and about their leadership. He summed up what he learned in an October 27 feature for the Times that I think is enlightening for the nonprofit sector as much as for the business sector.

The CEOs Bryant interviewed were incredibly diverse. Some had privileged childhoods while others escaped poverty, some were great students while others were not, some went to business school while others had been teachers, artists, and religious studies majors. He did find three commonalities most of these leaders shared:

  • First is what he calls “applied curiosity,” an interest in everything and everyone, and in how to make things better. There’s a skepticism in received wisdom and a desire to really understand.
  • Second is a love of challenge. “Discomfort is their comfort zone,” Bryant writes. They move “toward the fire.”
  • And third is a focus throughout their careers on succeeding in their current assignment. If you succeed, people will bet on you for the future, he reports. To get ahead, it is better not to worry so much about your career and to focus instead on excelling in your current job.

Bryant also found that the practice of leadership is full of paradoxes. For example, you need humility to recognize what you don’t know but also confidence to make decisions absent complete information; you need empathy for others but must remain willing to fire those who underperform; and you need a sense of urgency to drive the organization but also the patience to bring people along. Leadership requires balancing these and other paradoxes in the right way at the right time.

Bryant says if you forced him to choose the most important attribute of a good leader, he would say “trustworthiness,” followed closely by how much respect you have for the people who work for you. He quotes Pedro J. Pizarro, CEO of Edison International, saying “People are incredibly perceptive, and they seem to be more perceptive when they look at people above them than when they look down.” In other words, every action a leader takes is scrutinized for authenticity, for consistency, and for value to the organization. Discrepancies that might be overlooked in a coworker or direct report are magnified when they come from a top leader.

Bryant found no differences in the way people lead that are tied to gender. He acknowledges the difficulty women have attaining leadership roles, but sees other factors, such as introversion/extroversion, being analytical or creative, and the size of the family they grew up in, as more salient in producing a leadership style.

I wonder, if he had interviewed more than 500 nonprofit leaders, in what ways the results would be similar or differ?

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