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Board Directors and Chief Executive Officers

Inside the Mind of the Chief Executive Officer

Russell Reynolds Associates’ Inside the Mind of…series addresses the leadership and behavioral attributes of various groups of executives.

​Executive summary


Our framework and methodology

The Center for Leadership Insight’s “Eyes on the I’s” framework characterizes what’s needed for leaders at the top of organizations. Great leaders in the coming decades will embody the following traits, which we highlight throughout this paper as they manifest themselves in our results.



The Russell Reynolds Associates database—unique in that it contains 6,000 psychometric profiles of executives from the top ranks of corporations worldwide—allows us to make statistically driven observations about the characteristics possessed by leaders in a particular field.

Our methodology was straightforward: Using results on three well-validated psychometric instruments (the 16pf, the OPQ-32, and the Hogan Development Survey), we compared over 200 CEOs whom we have assessed around the world to our broader database of senior executives, and we conducted comparisons within this group as well to better understand what statistically significant differences emerged across our 60-attribute psychometric model. We validated the data from our CEOs with a sample of over 700 CEOs whose psychometric data had been collected by our partner, Hogan Assessment Systems, to ensure that the results were robust and generalizable.


What is the unique psychology of a CEO?

We began this study with a simple question:
Psychologically, are CEOs that different from the average executive?

Our findings are clear:

YES, they indeed are.
CEOs differ from other executives across MANY traits and on some traits to a LARGE degree.

This paper thus has three goals:

  1. Illuminate the genuinely unique psychology of the CEO – including to what degree common CEO stereotypes are borne out.

  2. Unpack the hallmark traits of “best in class CEOs.

  3. Provide a “field guide” to the psychology of CEOs with differing backgrounds and experience.

CEOs: a breed apart

On a psychometric basis, CEOs differ meaningfully—across many personality attributes—from the overall executive population. Two traits in particular stand out because of the magnitude of the difference from population averages—embracing the right risks and capitalizing on opportunities. These traits, which make CEOs courageous and fast-paced, can be considered the essence of the CEO personality. The ability to mindfully take action without hesitation truly separates them from others.

CEO essence (statistically significant differences of highest magnitude)


Do CEOs conform to common “CEO stereotypes”? 

On a statistically significant basis, are CEOs actually…


Best-performing CEOs: purposeful, substantive, down-to-earth

When we compared the best-performing CEOs to other CEOs, striking results emerged. Underlying the statistically significant differentiating traits of the best-performing CEOs (passionate urgency, a lack of pretension, and an ability to rise far above the details) are two key concepts: values and efficiency.

The values of these executives are manifest in their passion and their humility—they have a strong belief in what they are doing that lacks narcissistic elements. The efficiency of their approach comes through in their need to constantly make progress, as well as their ability to jettison minor elements that obfuscate the big-picture strategic view.


CEOs of public companies: deliberately understated


CEOs who were internally promoted: quietly digging in


What's next for CEOs?

The preceding data tells a clear story about today's CEOs. In the future, we believe CEOs will display certain traits even more strongly:


Influence: "Open organizations" erode traditional command and control. We see CEOs increasingly deploying traits such as persuasion, engagement of others, and empathy to motivate others effectively. Particularly as organizations seek to grow more diverse, we may see a distinct rise in especially perceptive CEOs who can readily engage with employees with a wide range of needs and motivations.

Inference: Swamped by Big Data, inundated by social media, and at the same time often more isolated from their customers than ever, CEOs are ever more challenged to draw nonlinear conclusions at astonishing speed. Those who deploy disciplined mental efficiency to derive answers will be in demand by organizations. Our psychometric study of more than 900 CEOs reveals that CEOs manifest a markedly different psychological profile from the average executive, characterized by a courageous, fast-paced nature as well as fluid thinking and high interpersonal engagement.

Initiative: Disruption is the order of the day, and seems likely to pick up pace in the coming years. Accordingly, organizations will seek out CEOs whose fast pace (combined with the aforementioned intellectual efficiency) and deep confidence allow them to take advantage of the gains that often accrue to first movers. Best-in-class CEOs show greater humility, passion, and ability to rise above the details than their peers.

Introversion/extroversion mix: As electronic communications technology continues to evolve, CEOs will be called upon less and less to be "larger than life" on an in-person basis and more to express themselves thoughtfully across a wide variety of channels. The introverted traits we already see in public company CEOs and internal candidates will become more prominent in this environment.


DEAN STAMOULIS leads the RRA Center for Leadership Insight. He provides guidance to boards and chief executive officers on how to build excellent leadership teams. This advisory work includes optimizing hiring, promotion, and succession decisions, and contributing to the development of promising senior executives. He is based in Atlanta.

MELISSA SWIFT is the Thought Leadership Architect for the RRA Center for Leadership Insight. She is charged with shaping and bringing to market the Center’s intellectual property. She is based in New York City.

ERIN MARIE CONKLIN is a member of the RRA Leadership & Succession practice. She supports assessment programs that lead to effective hiring decisions, leadership development, and cultural integration. She is based in Atlanta.

MOLLY FORGANG is a Knowledge Analyst in the RRA Center for Leadership Insight as well as the firm’s Leadership & Succession practice. She is based in New York City.

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Inside the Mind of the Chief Executive Officer