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A CEO’s keys to leading with a clear head

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills,Profiles in Leadership

For Daniel Vasella, former chairman of Novartis, success comes with self-awareness.

He finds that effective leaders possess four strengths:

1. They identify and resist temptations. Power seduces some people—and changes them in unhealthy ways. Vasella cautions that of all the reasons that leaders fail, their weakness in the face of “seduction” can take its toll. He warns his leadership team to know what se­­duces them and fight off such temptations.

“There are many different forms: sexual seduction, money, praise,” he says. “You need to be aware of how you can be seduced in order to be able to resist and keep your integrity.”

2. They benefit from a trusted sounding board. Frustrations come with the job of CEO. That’s why a leader needs to vent to someone who both understands and listens well, such as a mentor outside the organization.

Vasella says it’s particularly helpful to be able to say, “I’ve had it” to a trusted confidant. This person can provide perspective that keeps a leader grounded and focused on what matters most.

3. They compartmentalize well. A global CEO needs to withstand the physical grind of constant travel. But more importantly for Vasella, an effective leader must possess “psychological stamina.” That’s the ability to shift gears seamlessly as circumstances change, especially when he leaves the office. When he’s home, he “switches off” work so that he’s entirely present with his family.

4. They are comfortable admitting doubt. Some people buy into the myth of the infallible, all-knowing CEO. But in reality, leaders who express honest doubt to their team and their board come across as more authentic and believable.

“If you don’t [express doubt]—and you pretend—then you are playing a role, which others will sense rather easily leading to an unhealthy situation,” Vasella says.

— Adapted from “Leading in the 21st century,” Rik Kirkland, www.mckinsey.com.

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