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Anyone in a position of business influence will have the basic desire to be a good leader. It takes hard work and dedication to reach that point in a career. But there is another level that can be achieved: “exceptional leadership.” Those are the business leaders that achieve success for themselves and those around them through considerable effort, excellent communication skills and a clear vision for the future.

Here’s a look at how CEOs can strive toward being an exceptional leader.


Sure, it’s an obvious place to start, but having courage is incredibly important for a CEO. Travis Bradberry puts this first in his “12 Habits of Exceptional Leaders” list for Forbes, noting that people naturally want to follow those with courage, and that courageous leaders welcome adversity as a “trial by fire that refines leaders and sharpens their game.”

“People need courage in their leaders,” he writes. “They need someone who can make difficult decisions and watch over the good of the group. They need a leader who will stay the course when things get tough. People are far more likely to show courage themselves when their leaders do the same. … Leaders who lack courage simply toe the company line. They follow the safest path — the path of least resistance — because they’d rather cover their backside than lead.”


The manner in which business leaders express themselves is critical to success. Just as important is having the ability to truly listen to the people around them. Peter Gasca includes this in his list of things that “exceptional leaders do better” for

“The most exceptional leaders … are often those who ask more questions than they answer,” he writes. “Not coincidentally, they also know the right questions to ask. Typically, the reason exceptional leaders are great communicators is not because they orate well but rather that they are better at understanding with whom they are speaking.”

Problem solving

The day-to-day routine of a CEO may be filled with fires to put out and conflicts to resolve. Those aforementioned communication skills will be a great benefit at times like these, as is the ability to move past those issues. As Gasca writes, “Great leaders are exceptional problem identifiers. Exceptional leaders are better problem solvers.”

“One trait that separates great leaders from the field is the ability to delve into a problem, ask the right questions, and understand the root cause of an issue,” he explains. “This is not as easy as many believe. Exceptional leaders, however, not only intuitively understand how to do this but also how to construct and assess the problem in terms of a solution. It’s a fine line that exceptional leaders understand.”

Have higher standards

The CEO sets the example. When he or she emphasizes what’s most important, and the goals ahead, it establishes a path for the rest of the company to follow. In a story for, Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel, recommends that these standards include giving employees “the best tools, best talent, best training,” and then to “passionately demand the best outcomes.”

“At my company, we only hire ‘A’ people,” he explains. “We do not accept mediocrity. Then we train them more than anyone in our industry. We’re also constantly reinvesting in new technology and software to be at the forefront in the world. … Are you hiring the best talent? Giving them the best tools? Endlessly training them to be the best? Relentlessly demand superb performance so your clients are enchanted with your products and services.”


Those that climb the business ladder with an overinflated sense of self may achieve success in spite of their arrogance. Or it may be their downfall. Those that do it with humility can reach even higher, and make real connections with their employees, as Bradberry explains for Forbes.

“Great leaders are humble,” he says. “They don’t allow their position of authority to make them feel that they are better than anyone else. As such, they don’t hesitate to jump in and do the dirty work when needed. They won’t ask their followers to do anything they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves.”

Positive feedback

Everyone wants to be appreciated. So while business leaders shouldn’t feel the need to offer false praise, the recognition of good work is important. Safiyah Satterwhite examines this for Entrepreneur, advising that expectations should be clear, and there should be accountability systems in place. But, she notes, it’s a mistake to only act on these when something has gone wrong.

“If, as a child, the only time your mother said something to you was to reprimand you, you probably would not want to be around her too much today,” she writes. “Even if you have just one employee, be sure to give them affirmation when they are performing in alignment to your expectations. That makes it easier to have the conversation when you are not getting what you need from them.”


This goes hand-in-hand with humility. CEOs that know their limitations can appear to be more “real” to employees, and acknowledge that they can’t be everything to everyone. Bradberry includes this in his list for Forbes.

“Self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, a skill that 90 percent of top performing leaders possess in abundance,” he explains. “Great leaders’ high self-awareness means they have a clear and accurate image not just of their leadership style, but also of their own strengths and weaknesses. They know where they shine and where they’re weak, and they have effective strategies for compensating for those weaknesses.”

Being smart (and not the opposite)

All the great work a CEO has accomplished over the course of his or her career can come crashing down in the face of a scandal. Whether it’s a business, ethical or personal issue, the negative attention that can result from a leader’s actions can be overwhelming. Great leaders, Gasca writes, are “exceptionally smart.” Exceptional leaders “are better at not being stupid.”

“Not being stupid is one of the most undervalued skills today,” he writes. “This goes beyond bad business miscalculations to include remarkably stupid personal decisions leaders make that inevitably seep into and tarnish a business. Exceptional leaders instinctively know how to keep their noses clean and avoid precarious situations.”


It’s not enough to tackle mistakes and work on solutions. How business leaders handle those moments — especially when they caused the problem — can make a difference within the business. Acknowledging fault and the fact that they stumbled in this scenario may go a long way with employees, as Greenblatt writes:

“Do you transparently admit personal errors? Can you laugh at yourself? Can you admit when you screwed up and not shuffle the blame on other innocent bystanders? True leaders make mistakes because they are performing in a fast paced world with imperfect information. Decisively forging ahead with their intuition has led them to success and will in the future. When you make errors, call it out. Do not deflect your mistakes on others. It is a rare trait to say, ‘I screwed up.’ Employees will be impressed with your transparent style.”