Egon Zehnder profiled six exceptional CEOs offering insights into the leadership challenges and opportunities today's CEOs face.
As soon as we started working with Daniel, the new CEO of a global financial services firm, he impressed us as an intent listener. When we spoke, he gave us his steady attention. He offered his responses in well-crafted sentences, orchestrated with precise movements of his hands to emphasize how the elements of a situation were connected. In short, it was luminously clear to us that Daniel was a deep learner and profound thinker—and that his identity as a systematic analyzer has driven his career.
With senior experience across a range of key functions in major financial-services firms, Daniel was recognized for his contributions by the Board of a multinational company seeking a new chief executive. The Board appointed him unanimously; the firm celebrated his arrival. Yet Daniel was not one to be complacent: He understood that even with all his executive experience, leading a multi-billion-dollar firm with many thousands of employees in a turbulent global environment would call for a new level of consciousness and practice. The previous CEO had been admired globally for his wisdom as he grew the firm, and there were websites dedicated to his remarks and achievements. But Daniel, who was relatively unknown, would be facing a rockier business environment: an aggressive competitor that threatened to overtake the company, and a digital startup that could disrupt the whole industry.
“I have to review my entire approach,” Daniel told us. “I value the qualities that got me to where I am today, but I know I’m going to have to build on those in some important ways to get where I want to go.” Daniel asked us to help him rise to the challenge.
Double down or open up?
At first, he was inclined to double down on the skills that had worked so well for him. “Initially, I thought that my CEO position and challenges might be similar to my previous senior roles, but bigger, essentially calling for more data management and analysis,” he mused. But with his MBA and decades of executive experience, he had already pushed these capacities to the limit—and now found they were not enough to manage the complexity he faced. We wondered whether he might turn to those capacities that had not been at the forefront of his corporate rise so far; to reflect on himself not just as an analytic decision-maker, but as a richly intricate person. He could begin with some questions to inspire self-reflection: Who am I? What do I stand for?
We had in mind a powerful schema proposed by Erica Ariel Fox, Harvard Law School Lecturer and author of the bestselling book Winning from Within. Fox, who has worked with thousands of executives globally, has identified four archetypes in every person: the Thinker, the Warrior, the Dreamer and the Lover. The Thinker gathers and analyses facts; the Warrior draws on resolve to get results; the Dreamer develops an inspiring vision; and the Lover is attuned to human emotions, fostering rich and rewarding relationships.
Each person nurtures some of these ways of being, says Fox, but few people develop them all. Yet none of the archetypes should be neglected, as human beings enlarge themselves and assist others by cultivating every archetype: reason and resolve, vision and emotion.
We began to wonder whether Daniel had worked so hard to be a great Thinker and Warrior—to analyze and resolve whatever arose—that he might benefit from rediscovering his inner visionary, and his urge to connect profoundly with others. Daniel was intrigued, and he began a journey on the path of self-reflection, connecting with other CEOs and leaders who had undergone a similar personal transformation with us. Though he had already experienced many past interventions to promote personal development, this time he didn’t approach the task in a detached manner, as if he were taking an analytic MBA course. In his program with us, he began a genuine—indeed, brutally honest—process of self-reflection.
As our discussions continued, Daniel began to feel that his relentless focus had narrowed his consciousness. One day he said to us, “I think there are doors in my life that have been closed for a long time—and I want to open them.” We had the privilege to work closely with him as he embarked on a journey of transformation. As Daniel became more authentic and vulnerable, facing up to his anxieties and developing inspiring hopes, he began working to open himself up not only as a business leader, but also as a father and a spouse; he strove to operate not only with his powerful intellect, but with an integrated mind and body. He would never lose his powers as a Thinker and a Warrior—but now he was finding his potential as a Dreamer and Lover, with rewards for himself and for others.
As Daniel worked on himself, he found that he was naturally reaching out to his top management, and feeling the same commitment to their development. “It’s not just about me,” he said; “it’s about an expansion of consciousness for the team and the firm, an enlargement of our vision and imagination—and, ultimately, an inclusiveness that spans society at large.” No profound change is easy, and there were days when Daniel was tempted to narrow his focus again, returning to a purely analyze-and-execute mindset. But he kept enlarging himself, and his expanded vision—self-aware, relational, and adaptive—yielded innovative ideas, benefiting the ecosystem in which the company operates. His firm has lent its financial, technical and strategic expertise to many other organizations, supporting them in the broader economy.
In one initiative that grew from his enlarged awareness, Daniel identified data analytics as a strong enabler of performance that his company was well positioned to address—so, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, he rolled out cutting-edge analytics support for businesses, at no cost to them. He has also stepped up collaboration with other institutions to strengthen financial inclusion worldwide, and he faces new challenges with everything he can bring to them. Maintaining his firm’s innovative position in an environment of new and established competitors, Daniel is no longer the newcomer stepping into the large shoes of his revered predecessor; he is a leader striving continually to fulfil his own potential, and that of his company.
The dual journey
Transitioning into the role of CEO requires an intense period of personal reflection, as the majority of the CEOs who formed part of our research project—a global group of more than 400 CEOs—have strongly affirmed. Daniel’s extraordinary journey shows the power of great leadership in this new period of global change. At Egon Zehnder, we believe that for CEOs to be successful, they must embark on a dual journey, simultaneously transforming themselves and their organizations.
Every era presents its own social, economic, political, and technological environment—and thus, its own requirements for leadership. In our time, human connection and self-awareness have emerged as core qualities. The focus is shifting from doing to being: CEOs are moving from the traditional command-and-control approach to a mindset of constant personal growth, embracing curiosity, adaptability, and the ability to build strong teams.
When leaders choose authenticity, as Daniel did, they connect purpose to personal meaning, and naturally develop a deep commitment to their organization, its people, and its stakeholders. The authenticity at play here is not a rigid insistence on a preconceived set of beliefs and behaviors, but a deep and adaptive willingness to experiment and find ways that promote thriving.
Many companies have embraced a broader role of care for society during the COVID-19 pandemic—spurred by the crisis, they have already embarked on a journey to the new way of leadership. Indeed, the new leadership is aligned with philosopher Peter Singer’s classic account of the expanding circle—a process of reflection and care that becomes ever more encompassing.
Our research indicates that the consciousness of an organization’s leadership determines the organization’s performance; a firm cannot perform at a higher level than its leaders’ self-awareness. Hence, self-awareness is an organizational imperative. CEOs can follow several paths to self-awareness: being curious and surrounding themselves with honest, strong and intelligent people; adopting personal habits, like mindfulness, that allow them to listen with their minds and hearts; and learning to experiment outside their comfort zones.
Thousands of deep and sustained engagements with CEOs in every sector across the globe, as well as our relationships with the Boards that hire them, have convinced us of the essential importance of CEO self-awareness. Indeed, self-awareness is one of Egon Zehnder’s three mutually supportive pillars of CEO leadership, standing together with a relational orientation and adaptiveness. Self-awareness strengthens leaders’ relationships by enhancing listening skills that promote learning, rather than a rush toward a hasty “fix”; it also promotes adaptiveness by raising perception of trends and opportunities.
Self-aware leaders enable others in their organization to become reflective and vulnerable too, in a process of collective self-awareness. And because this collective self-awareness typically does not arise spontaneously, it is the CEO’s responsibility to foster it. In the words of Fox: “Self-awareness is now a central driver of success. A self-aware leader helps an organization be more self-aware so there’s a huge multiplier effect.”
A CEO might adopt simple mechanisms such as asking management-team members to check in at the start of meetings to say how they are feeling that day, and what they hope their impact on their colleagues will be. They might also embrace more challenging approaches. For example, one group explicitly asked itself why one of its members was always critical, and learnt that she expected perfection from herself and others; this realization helped her to be less hard on herself, and the team to appreciate her critical contributions.
When they have the courage to choose openness and unfamiliar ways of being over the goal of invincibility, as Daniel so vividly displayed, leaders redefine their role for our times. They promote changes in themselves and their organizations that radiate outwards, bringing their vision to help create a more supportive and collaborative world.