• | 9:00 am

What’s most important in a CEO: humility, authenticity, or empathy?

Here’s what readers say is the most important leadership skill for the top job.

What’s most important in a CEO: humility, authenticity, or empathy?
[Source photo: Rawpixel]


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece suggesting that the No. 1 trait CEOs need right now is humility. Tim Ryan, senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) U.S., argued that today’s leaders need to be bold, occasionally fail, and have the humility to recognize and fix mistakes.

A few readers were quick to disagree. Consultant Brian Faulkner says empathy tops his list of CEO characteristics, noting that humility is more deferential, while empathy is a strategic skill that “requires a broad understanding of the wide palette of issues and opportunities facing a leader at all times.” David Meadvin, founder of CEO and communications advisory firm One Strategy Group, contends that authenticity trumps humility, especially among younger chief executives. “You need to be comfortable in your own skin; you need to be self-aware enough to know what you don’t know and where you struggle,” he says. “You can work to get better at those things, but often it makes more sense to fill the gaps by finding people who can do them better than you can.”


To me, empathy, authenticity, and humility are complementary. These are characteristics that used to be derided as “soft skills,” but are now viewed as essential parts of modern leadership.

They’re also intertwined. When I asked Mark Smucker, president and CEO of The J.M. Smucker Company, what authenticity means to him, his answer also demonstrated empathy for his employees and humility in acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers.

“For me being authentic is about honesty and transparency,” he says. “I want employees to not just know what we are doing but also why we are doing it. It’s taking the time to acknowledge the realities of life while understanding our workforce is comprised of more than employees—they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and partners, and so much more. It’s important for me to articulate this and my appreciation that these roles have obligations as well. And it’s being willing to acknowledge challenges so that we can work together to make the best decisions.”


Is the No. 1 trait for CEOs empathy, authenticity, or humility? Perhaps the answer should be: “all of the above.”

Let’s continue the debate over the No. 1 trait for CEOs. What tops your list of de rigueur leadership qualities for a modern leader? Send your comments to  stephaniemehta@mansueto.com. I’ll publish the freshest insights in a future newsletter.

  Be in the Know. Subscribe to our Newsletters.



More Top Stories: