May 15, 2023

Attributes of a High-Performing CEO

Shailja Sharma

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The attributes of a successful and effective Chief Executive Officer (CEO) have long been debated. Academicians have studied the profiles of high-performing CEOs to try to gain insight into their defining attributes and reached a  consensus. The CEO must be visionary and be able to articulate the company’s vision compellingly. They must be able to rally and inspire their followers to achieve the vision and steer their companies through the murky waters of the 21st century.

Does the CEO hesitate when making a decision or does he or she decide too quickly without accurately assessing the data available? Can he or she act quickly and capitalize on opportunities? What about proactivity, humility, emotional intelligence, reliability, adaptability, inspiring, engaging, inclusive, creative, innovative, responsible, mastering and leading through change, crisis management, networking, influencing, and persuading, handling media scrutiny, coaching, mentoring, being ethical, and providing opportunities for growth for their followers? .

The list can be daunting for anyone contemplating taking on the role. And for those privileged few who have accepted the challenge, one of the most important attributes they possess or are developing, is courage. The courage to believe in their convictions, the courage to make the first move, to adopt a stance on an important issue, to lead during a crisis and above all, the courage to take risks and to take responsibility for failures.

CEOs in Africa

African CEOs must succeed in a challenging business environment characterized by limited infrastructure, corruption, undeveloped markets, political instability, low spending power, poverty, and unemployment. However, there are huge opportunities that can be tapped into. The continent is rich in resources, growing markets, a fast-growing population, unfulfilled demands for goods and services and affordable labour. Furthermore, African CEOs bear the responsibility to shape the future of the continent. Issues such as unemployment and the jarring divide between the rich and the poor and increased poverty levels need to be tackled. After all, in the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.’

Where Does Vision Come From?

If the CEO does not have a clear vision on where the company is going then who does? The CEO is, after all, the highest-ranking executive in the company and is responsible for the overall direction and performance of the organization. So where does this vision come from?

CEOs must assume a more active role in tackling global challenges. They must also understand all their stakeholders and the communities that their businesses serve. The expectations of good corporate citizenship have shifted and business leaders are increasingly being viewed as community leaders and not just as corporate leaders. The skill to look into the future and create a vision, develop it, and hone it can be learned.

African CEOs must understand the context and environment in which their business operates. A CEO needs to learn to zoom out and understand the ecosystem in which the company operates, the industry and related industries it competes with, and the local, regional, and global environments that affect the company. The CEO also needs to be able to shift inwards and look at company processes, products, and future pipelines critically to understand which strategies will move the company in the desired direction.

Adapting to Change

CEOs must understand the nuances and complexities of megatrends and how their organizations can capitalize on them. The term ‘megatrend’ was first coined in 1982 by US economist John Naisbitt and it refers to long-term trajectories of attitudinal and behavioural change that occur slowly over the course of one to two decades. Societal megatrends can modify how customers live, their purchasing patterns, and their cultural attitudes. A CEO should be able to spot new megatrends on their radar that may be developing on the fringes that can affect the future operations of the company.

The world is constantly changing and a CEO needs to keep a finger on the pulse of their business. Ensuring that data management systems are effective and facilitating data-driven decision-making is critical. Furthermore, keeping the lines of communication open to allow for information exchange and harnessing the power of technology can help an organization become more agile. Finally, as CEOs hold positions of great influence, the expectations placed on them are rising. They are expected to fix social problems and speak out on societal issues. They are expected to help their organizations create a meaningful impact on society. A CEO is seen as a role model in society who  inspires the next generation. If you are a CEO or aspiring to become one, own your impact. Decide what you and your company stand for and how you will create an enduring positive impact on the world around you.

About the Global CEO Africa Programme

The Global CEO Africa Programme is designed for African business leaders to help them enhance their strategic vision and equip them with new tools to better navigate disruptive trends. This Programme is delivered by Strathmore University Business School in partnership with Lagos Business School and Yale School of Management. Learn more about the Global CEO Africa Programme here

Article by Shailja Sharma, SBS Faculty Member and Leadership and Career CoachWould you like to share an article? Write to us at

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