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Six Mindsets That Distinguish The Best Leaders

The key takeaway from the new book, CEO Excellence: The Six Mindsets That Distinguish The Best Leaders From The Rest, is the best CEOs think and act differently than the rest across each of six key CEO responsibilities, including: 

  1. Setting the direction (vision, strategy, resource allocation)
  2. Aligning the organization (culture, organization design, talent)
  3. Mobilizing through leaders (composition, teamwork, operating rhythm)
  4. Engaging the board (relationships, capabilities, meetings)
  5. Connecting with stakeholders (social purpose, interaction, moments of truth)
  6. Managing personal effectiveness (time and energy, leadership model, perspective) 

Starting with a pool of more than 2,400 corporate leaders, McKinsey & Company senior partners and authors Carolyn DewarScott Keller, and Vik Malhotra extensively screened the group to identify the elite core, then sat down with 67 of them for multiple hours to talk about their methods. 

“Despite their different approaches, every CEO at every stage of their tenure meaningfully tended to all six responsibilities. The best CEOs kept all six plates spinning at all times, even if the external and internal environment meant that some needed to be spun faster or slower than others,” explain the authors. 

“Keep in mind that we’re not suggesting that the best CEOs excel in every aspect of the role—in fact, we’ve yet to meet one who does. Rather, the best CEOs are excellent in a few areas, and do a solid if not exemplary job in the others.” 

The 67 in-depth interviews included conversations with some of the world’s most prominent and inspirational current and former CEOs, including Reed Hastings of Netflix, Sony’s Kaz Harai, and General Motors’ Mary Barra. 

Be sure to check out the books’ Appendix 2 where you’ll find the bios of these 67 interviewed CEOs along with key facts about each – including their milestone leadership impacts on their respective organizations. 

CEO Excellence is a fascinating, inspiring, revealing, lesson-packed read for any leader who wants to hone their skills to achieve leadership excellence. 

It’s also a critically timely must-read, when you consider that 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs last fewer than three years in the role, and two out of five new CEOs are deemed to be failing within 18 months. On the flipside, CEOs whose companies rank in the top 20% of financial performance in their industries are generating 2.8 times more annual returns to their shareholders than their peers. In fact, the extent to which the CEOs themselves are significant predictors of company performance is higher than at any point in history.

Carolyn Dewar

Scott Keller

Vikram (Vik) Malhotra

Earlier this year, the authors shared these insights with us:

Question: Which of the six responsibilities of the CEO do many CEOs find most daunting and why?


Dewar/Keller/Malhotra: Like a sailor will have to tend to different things based on what’s happening in their environment, the relative importance of each of the six responsibilities varies with every CEO’s unique context. Having said that, what’s changed most in the environment for all CEOs over the past decade is the extent to which, and how, their role interfaces with external stakeholders.


The pressures and paradoxes involved in orienting oneself and one’s company towards environmental, social, and political issues are ever heightened by the increased transparency, speed of transmission, and accountability that social media enables. “How broadly should I think about ‘purpose’?”, “When should and shouldn’t I/we take a public stand on societal issues?”, and “How do I ensure we’re prepared for an inevitable crisis?” are all questions that weigh heavily on the minds of today’s CEOs.

Question: There is so much to learn from CEO Excellence. How do you recommend readers read the book and use it to apply the learnings? 

Dewar/Keller/Malhotra: Firstly, for CEOs, we hope the book is something they can not only learn a lot from on the first pass through but also use as a practical “how to” resource when their context changes and certain elements of the role require a level of excellence than may not have been required in the past. 

Secondly, because the leadership lessons are those forged among the highest profile, highest stakes, and most complex leadership positions, we see that many of the lessons also apply to the vast majority of leadership roles. Viewed through this lens, we hope any leader will find it helpful. 

Take the mindset of “be bold”, for example. Any leader would do well to ask themselves: Are they pursuing a direction that fills an unmet need, uses their unique capabilities, and is driven by a noble purpose? Have they involved a group of people in shaping the vision and therefore are emotionally invested in wanting to help make it a reality? Are they taking actions that are unquestionably big “needle movers”? Have they redirected time, energy, talent, and finances away from lower priority pursuits towards taking these actions? And so on.

Question: Of the many CEO biographies included in the book, which one or two of those CEOs inspire you the most and why?


Dewar/Keller/Malhotra: Honestly, we can say that every CEO inspired us with their stories, and each in unique ways. When Marillyn Hewson of Lockheed Martin walked us through the lessons she learned as she responded to then President-elect Trump’s tweet to the American public that he felt F-35 costs were out of control, which wiped of $4 billion of market cap in a day, it was both gripping and profound.


When Piyush Gupta recounted how he turned around the Singapore bank DBS, now the largest in southeast Asia, with an audacious vision of becoming the Alibaba of the banking sector – a technology company that delivers financial services, not vice versa – it was very powerful.


One theme that cut across the interviews was that of humility, and Reed Hastings of Netflix shared a very memorable story of how he learned what servant leadership meant. As a young engineer before founding Netflix, he’d work late nights and consume a lot of coffee. In the morning his coffee cups were always cleaned from his desk and put away. One morning he came back to the office early only to find someone at the sink cleaning the cups. That person, to his surprise, was the CEO of the company! On being caught in the act the CEO smiled and said, “You do so much for us, this is the least I can do for you.”


Thank you to the book’s publisher for sending me an advance copy of the book.


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