What It Takes to Be a Real CEO

Never before in history have people been so divided about what it means to be a chief executive officer. As three letter acronyms go, CEO has got to be the most polarizing. And not just two poles, either. I count at least three: disdain, jealousy, and respect.

Let’s start with jealousy. Lots of people have CEO envy these days. Everyone with a website and a Twitter account thinks he’s a CEO. A CEO of one. But here’s the thing. Calling yourself a CEO doesn’t make you a CEO. It’s just a title. It doesn’t mean anything, except that you’re maybe a little too self-important.

Then there are those who think CEOs are the pinnacle of capitalistic gluttony, privileged white males who somehow inherited the title or magically dropped out of the sky into cushy corner office chairs. It’s actually become quite popular to demonize top executives, to despise them. Strange but true.

That brings us to those who respect CEOs. They respect CEOs because they respect business and how companies are run. They know that it takes a lot to get to the top of the corporate ladder. They know it’s a crowning achievement. They know that a lot of what they read about CEOs is nothing but hype.

Take CEO pay, for example. CEO compensation and exit packages may be egregiously out of control, but that’s only true for a small percentage of corporations, the really big ones, like some of the S&P 500 companies.

Last time I checked, there were about six thousand public companies and countless private companies in America alone. In my experience, the vast majority of the chief executives of those companies don’t fit the stereotype.

But this isn’t about CEO myths. It’s not about the stereotypical CEO, the kind that makes headlines. This is about the 99% of CEOs, the real kind, the ones that live and work in the real world. The ones I’ve known and worked with the past three decades or so. This is about what it takes to be a real CEO:

A passion for work. We’re always telling everyone they should be passionate about what they do for a living. Well, I’ll tell you what CEOs are passionate about. Work. Their commitment to their work is enormous. They make all sorts of crazy sacrifices that nobody ever thinks about. Neither do they. They’re too busy working.

Doing what you think is right when everyone says you’re nuts. Any VC will tell you, if you want to be a successful entrepreneur, be prepared for a hundred people to tell you you’re on the wrong track before you find one person who sees what you can see. FedEx’s Fred Smith, Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher, Virgin’s Richard Branson, these were founding CEOs with vision. It takes a lot to go against conventional wisdom, to do the unpopular, to fight the status quo. Many try. Few succeed.

Courage in the face of adversity. Everyone has fears. You, me, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, everyone. But most of us get to stay relatively close to our comfort zones. Not CEOs. They have to face adversity all the time. I worked with one chief executive who had a paralyzing fear of public speaking. Still, he had to do it for his company, his employees, his shareholders. And every time he had to get up to that podium, I knew how he felt. But once you take on that responsibility, you don’t get to hide from your fears. You have to face them day in, day out.

Stickwithitness. It might surprise you to know how many top executives started with nothing. Former Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg started his career as a cable splicer’s assistant right out of high school. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson worked in Southwestern Bell’s Oklahoma IT department. Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein grew up not far from where I did on the streets of Brooklyn. It took them decades to get to the top. But they stuck with it.

Willingness to live a nomadic life. When I was a senior executive, I spent about a third of my life away from home, waking up in hotel rooms with no idea what country I was in or how I got there. I’m not complaining. I survived it. But would I want to do it again? No way. After 3 million miles on American Airlines alone, I’d just as soon never get on another plane again. Most people take their home lives for granted. Not CEOs. They know what they’re missing.

Determination to overcome never-ending obstacles. I once had a CEO who said he loved his job because every day was a new challenge. That’s one hell of a positive spin to put on it, that’s for sure. I remember when his two top VPs resigned – on the same day. I don’t know how he survived, but he did. He never gave up and never surrendered. And four years later, he took that company public. Sure, he made it big, but he fought hard every day to get there.

The ability to make smart, high-risk decisions. Every CEO I’ve known has been a massive sponge for knowledge and experience. They’re readers, listeners, and doers. That, I believe, is what enables them to be such great trouble-shooters and problem solvers. To boil enormously complex issues down to simple concepts that everyone can understand. To be decisive in the face of uncertainty. To take risks that others are unwilling to take.

I guess you can think what you want about CEOs; just remember that each and every one of them started out just like you and me. They didn’t set out to run a company. They didn’t set out to lead, manage thousands of people, or make megabucks. They just did their jobs the best they could. And they were good at it.

One more thing. They had to have respect for how businesses operate, for each and every employee it takes to build a great company, up to and including the chief executive officer. If not, they never could have had such successful careers. You simply can’t achieve what you don’t respect. Disdain and jealousy won’t get you there.