People report to managers, but they FOLLOW leaders,” says Adam Bryant in his book
The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed

You don’t need to be a CEO to act and think like one – in fact, communications and marketing staff members at
level can benefit from CEO-think. Whether you’re already in the corner office or typing away in the cubicle down the hall, thinking like a leader can benefit you, your entire team and the institution you work for.

Because here’s the thing: leaders don’t have to come from the top. Leaders are people at ANY level who have the imagination, knowledge, creativity, inspirational ability and vision to elevate the workplace and to positively persuade others. You don’t need to be a Bill Gates or a Martha Stewart to think like a CEO right now – or to be one in the future. As management guru Peter Drucker said: “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organized in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

Bryant, who also writes the “Corner Office” feature in
The New York Times
, has identified five common characteristics of CEOs – and here they are, with my own commentary on each. I recognize these elements every day in our top leaders at Chapman University, and I hope that you have the same sort of leaders at your own institutions. Watch them, learn from them, and incorporate these traits into your own workplace life:

1. Passionate curiosity

The best CEOs are imbued with a sense of wonder about the world. They wonder how things work and why. They have a wide range of interests and aren’t afraid to let people know of them. Their minds are restless and relentless. They’re curious about YOU and they’re genuinely interested in your story. So keep learning, keep asking questions.  Be curious about everything.  Michelangelo, in his 80s, said “
Ancora imparo
(I am still learning).”  And so should we, always.

2. Battle-hardened confidence

The best CEOs have a record of embracing adversity and overcoming it. They have a clear sense of purpose and determination – and much of that stems from having failed and having learned from it, and forging ahead. You know that question you always get in job interviews, “Describe an instance where you failed, and how you overcame and learned from it”? These folks have that nailed.  Failure can be a gift, if you know how to use it.

3. Team smarts

Great CEOs are team architects, and they know how to organize and inspire a team. They are morale-builders. William Wallace revving up the troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge? Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day? Yeah, that guy. If it’s going to be a battle out there – even if it’s words on a page or graphics on a screen instead of slings and arrows — you want someone out in front who inspires you to plunge into the fray right along with him or her.


Henry V knew how to fire up his team. (Tom Hiddleston in “The Hollow Crown”)

4. A simple mind-set

Leaders keep it clear, straightforward and to-the-point. It’s an art form, and few of us can do it without practice. We don’t need to give chapter and verse in every presentation, point by pedantic point. Information and deep background are easily available on the Internet and elsewhere – so master the art of the executive gloss, and look to connect the dots in new and inventive ways.

5. Fearlessness

“I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” said the poet Robert Frost of those two roads that diverged in a yellow wood. Don’t be afraid to shake things up, tread unexplored terrain and change the way things have always been done.

And, in addition to Bryant’s five traits, I’ll add another crucial one:

6. Believe!

Real leaders believe with all their hearts in what they say and in what they promote. There’s nothing faux or contrived in this belief – it’s a deeply held mission integrity that everyone around them can feel. They lead with a servant heart, because they know that we all are in service to something greater than ourselves: the future of our students and the mission of higher education. They make us believe right along with them. As communicators, we need to follow their lead… and take the lead!