The best CEOs have these 4 pairs of conflicting characteristics

Clarke Murphy, Contributor
25-year-old CEO: What it really takes to be successful
25-year-old CEO: What it really takes to be successful

What we want from our CEOs changes with every economic boom and bust.

In the late '90s it was the "vision thing." After the tech bubble burst, it was a focus on growth at all costs. In the shadow of the global financial crisis, we wanted leaders who were comfortable with cost cutting and capital allocation.

Today, in the most global, complex and interconnected world we've ever operated in, what we want of our CEOs is not as easy to describe. The world is changing too quickly, and we are all realizing that simple leadership models can no longer keep pace.

In the 30 years since I started my career, we have learned a lot about CEOs and executive behaviors. We have gotten much more scientific about how we assess leaders, and our description of leadership behaviors have become richer and more nuanced.

The key to running a successful company: hire the right people
The key to running a successful company: hire the right people

At the same time, CEOs and Boards have become increasingly interested in using data and science to hire leaders. Given the rise in competition, disruption and uncertainty, it is no surprise that companies are focused on hiring the best possible candidate for the job.

So what does the data tell us?

It turns out that successful senior executives are more complex than most people may have appreciated. They are also exceptionally balanced, becoming masters of what we call "competing competencies."

They are strong in pairs of behaviors that may, at first blush, seem to be at odds with each other if not outright contradictory. But by mastering both traits in each pair, a leader can magnify their strengths while mitigating their weaknesses.

We see this clearly in four areas:

These leaders are simultaneously both disruptive and pragmatic

Organizations need a leader to disrupt the status quo with innovation, but they also must be pragmatic about focus, priorities, and the pace of innovation in their organization.

They are both risk-taking and reluctant

A good leader takes calculated risks and is opportunistic, but we also want them to show vigilance before steering an organization off a cliff.

Russell Reynolds Associates

They are both heroic and vulnerable

A heroic leader needs to ensure perseverance and grit don't turn into self-delusions. They need to solicit enough input and counsel to make continuous improvements to themselves and their organizations.

They are both galvanizing and connecting

Leaders must generate support with energy and inspiration, but they also need to know when to take a step back and share credit, promote the success of others, and to connect the organization to higher values and mission.

We have not historically thought of being reluctant and vulnerable as strengths, but they are. More importantly, they are the ideal antidotes to the negative aspects of being risk-taking and heroic, just as pragmatic and connecting balance out disruptive and galvanizing.

The full set of eight traits – what we call leadership span – are a powerful combination for CEOs and their direct reports. We did not have the words to describe these behaviors when I started my career 30 years ago, but we do now – and our understanding of leadership is better off because of it.

Clarke Murphy is the chief executive officer of Russell Reynolds Associates, a global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

9 career secrets a 25-year-old CEO thinks everyone should know
9 career secrets a 25-year-old CEO thinks everyone should know