It’s Non-Negotiable: Your Next CEO Needs This Skill

CEO Succession
Article Icon Article
Dean Stamoulis
April 29, 2022
5 min read
CEO Succession
Executive Summary
Board expectations for CEOs are evolving, and the list of CEO ‘nice-to-haves’ and requirements has grown—exponentially.


Many of the traditional expectations of a CEO are still important. CEOs still need sharp strategic thinking skills along with the ability to lead with confidence and have a clear strategic vision. But one key trait is becoming more important than ever before, and it’s potentially the single biggest decider of whether or not a CEO hire will be successful.

That secret ingredient is empathic accuracy the ability to understand and relate to others—and to incite people into taking meaningful action.

The Insightful CEO

The trope of the maverick savant CEO ("He might be a nasty piece of work but, by god, he gets results!") has grown long in the tooth. 

Instead, today’s best and most successful CEOs don't brute force results. They galvanize the organization, using their high empathic accuracy to connect with others and make sensitive—yet decisive—decisions.

For this type of CEO, social awareness and interpersonal skills are a maker or breaker of success.

Common traits of Insightful CEOs

Our studies show that boards are increasingly prioritizing social skills and emotional intelligence in their CEO hires.

But social skills involve more than an ability to schmooze. Socially adept, CEOs with empathic accuracy have:

01. An ability to influence and develop others

Empathic accuracy helps a CEO understand people’s ‘ticks’ and navigate the emotional intricacies of the workforce landscape around them.

They positively influence those around them and those further afield, encouraging all to pull toward a common goal. And they are able to identify and cultivate senior level talent in order to build effective leadership teams that meet the needs of an evolving organization.

Today’s interconnected business landscape also means external collaboration is imperative. Which is why the modern CEO also needs to be personable and capable of striking up gainful, ethical partnerships with other companies.

02. Broader sensitivity and progressiveness in actions and thinking

The CEO’s empathic accuracy also lends itself to broader sensitivity in their actions. They connect authentically to the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and have a mindset geared toward sustainability. They are more empathic towards their people and infuse purpose and meaning into everything they do—and, crucially, foster a similar sense of purposeful empathy throughout the organization.

And, because they are doing this authentically, they are more likely to make real progress—especially compared to those who merely see issues as boxes to tick. They’ll have the courage (and the emotional strength and motivation) to transform their organization, helping to draw others into living the organization’s values.  

03. Responsiveness and an ability to collaborate with stakeholders

CEOs need to have an openness to their interactions with the board. Nothing heralds a quick end to a CEO’s tenure faster than defensiveness. As one of our clients put it: “Our board wants someone who will listen and authentically respond.”

A CEO with a developed sense of empathic accuracy is also able to anticipate and respond to situations and stakeholder challenges better. They do this by building supportive leadership structures around them and soliciting input and solutions from broader sources (while still maintaining their own judgment). By doing so, they are able to lead their team in building a more conscientious, conscious organization.

Why is all of this important now?

Arguably, it was always important. But the new prominence is directly linked to changing social expectations in response to evolving technology and increased transparency.

People expect more from businesses. We now look to organizations to be led by Sustainable Leaders—those who are socially responsible and truly stand for something, while also building high-performing teams. Boards are aware of this and expect more of their CEOs as a result.

That puts the modern CEO in a tricky position. They are more culpable and accountable… but also have less absolute authority.

In the absence of command-and-control leadership, the modern CEO needs to be able to orchestrate influence organically—motivating change by inspiring a desire to follow rather than compulsion.

So while it’s true that the most high-performing CEOs have high empathic accuracy, it’s about more than just their personal ability to empathize. Crucially, insightful CEOs also need to know how to raise the emotional intelligence and social accountability of the organization around them.

And that is what the emotionally insightful organization is: it's one that, guided by the positive influence of its CEO, materially changes its culture and behavior to incorporate emotional intelligence at every level.

The emotionally insightful organization

CEOs are the stewards of an organization’s values. They mold the living entity that is the growing organization, giving it direction and building the momentum that spurs people into action.

Which is why it’s imperative that boards choose the right person for the job.

Real, sustainable culture change comes from the mass adoption of a new mindset. And that can only be achieved with a leader that leads by example and motivates through a shared set of values and drivers. Someone who ‘walks the talk’ and truly believes in what they’re advocating for.

Moving forward, the emotionally insightful organization will be at the forefront of change.

They’ll be the organizations leading the charge and building work structures that are more socially accountable, more conscious, more diverse, and more sustainable.

They’ll be the organizations improving the way the world is led. 

Turning your organization into an emotionally insightful one begins with hiring the right kind of CEO. But the journey to a CEO hire starts earlier than you might think—with a dedicated CEO succession planning process. 





Find out how CEO succession can help you by getting in touch with one of our consultants today.