From delegator to hands-on manager, all CEOs have distinct leadership style

successful leader wood figure
Employees are molded by the way their CEO leads. (Jirsak/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

From being 100% hands-on to being a big delegator, CEOs all have their own styles of leadership.

These approaches allow their companies and employees to thrive, if their skills and personal approaches mesh, or fail, if they are not at the top of their game.

“CEOs only have one job: own the future,” said Ed Chambliss, CEO of advertising agency Phelps. “So everything I do as a leader revolves around that responsibility.”

First on that list “is to define the future—where we, as a company, should go to best prosper in the complex and constantly changing landscape,” Chambliss said. “That’s certainly not a quick or solitary exercise. Nor is it one you ever complete. But it is the reason you’re captain of the ship.”

Second is “articulation of the path to the team,” Chambliss said. “My personal style is to build voluntary alignment through a healthy discussion rather than by issuing orders. I never want people to do things just because the CEO said so. If they’re only doing something because of my title, rather than because they believe it’s the right thing to do, then they won’t be fully invested.”

Next is to back away, Chambliss said. “If you’ve set a good course and built alignment, then get the heck out of the way and let your people be the rock stars you hired them to be. Leadership is not management. And it’s certainly not micromanagement.”

“Once I’ve defined the vision and hired the best people I can find for every role, it all comes down to delegation, motivation and feedback,” said Fred Schuster, CEO of Madras Brand Solutions. “I delegate by trust and intuition. Micromanagement will stunt our growth, so it’s up to me to trust the team and stay out of the little things, but feel who’s ready for each challenge and when a project is coming off the rails. That’s the only time I step in. Particularly when there’s a lot on the line, it’s hard to let go and let good people do what they do best. But it’s the most rewarding thing about being a CEO.”   

To motivate people, Schuster said he follows his father, who was a schoolteacher for 45 years. “Never shout because it puts people on defense, only raise my voice selectively to signal urgency and tell people when I’m proud of or disappointed in their work,” he said.

Often “the most important thing I do is listen,” Schuster said. “Feedback is a two-way street, and I learn every day what works, what people need, where we can improve and how my own adjustments figure into that. I guess you could call that leading by example.”

John Van Siclen, CEO of Dynatrace, sees being able to turn on a dime, when necessary, as the sign of a good leader.

“Greatness is fleeting and the next big thing is always on the horizon,” Van Siclen said in an interview with USA Weekly. “I’ve learned that it’s not enough to rest on today’s success, so staying a step ahead is something that’s always on my mind.”

Five years ago, anticipating the digital transformation needs of enterprises to adapt monitoring for cloud computing, “we made the decision to reinvent Dynatrace’s offering,” Van Siclen said. “We were already successful, nothing was 'broken,' so the decision to completely overhaul our solution faced some skepticism. Ultimately, it was the right call and has catapulted us to where we are today, redefining performance monitoring and application intelligence.”

“Today’s leaders are constantly working to navigate the complexity around them and the diverse people they lead,” said Brad Deutser, CEO of Deutser, a consulting firm.

This requires “a different approach to leadership—one that acknowledges the need to thrive in a constant state of change where leaders must adapt with a style that reflects vision and the desired future state, fiercely protects and purposefully evolves culture, and works not to communicate with, but genuinely engage with its constituents, inside and outside the organization,” Deutser said. “Clarity is the one must-have that drives performance at every level of the organization and simultaneously provides both flexibility and continuity.”

Clifford Backscheider, president of The Results Consult Group, said the operating style of successful leaders always has these characteristics:

  • Relentless focus on the goals and values of the company. These are the guiding stars.
  • Personal humility: Only hire people who are smarter than you and work to draw out the best in others.
  • Maintain a “clinical separation” from the emotional climate that affects employees; do not define your self-image by the reactions of others.
  • Others are drawn to trust the leader and thereby willing to risk on behalf of the company.
  • A leader really only has two tasks: to hold and communicate the vision/goals of the enterprise and to remove barriers in the way of employees accomplishing the goals.

“Considering my position as founder and CEO, I remain 100% hands-on in every aspect of the company from budget approval, to product shipping, to customer service,” said Hesam Lamei, CEO of Aventis Systems. “Despite having an introverted personality, I’m able to communicate my vision and drive it forward, which has been one of the keys to our success. I quickly recognized that the more time you put into the business, the more you get out of it in the long run.”

“I have seen a lot change over the past 15 years and can confidently say we will only continue to see additional changes year after year,” said Frank Gonzalez, president of TSP. “As a business owner and CEO, you have to stay ahead of the curve—or at least not fall behind.”

As the industry evolves, so must the company, Gonzalez said. “You have to develop new service offerings in order to compete, as well as add value to customers. In addition, cybersecurity as it relates to data breaches and loss is a major concern for any business.”  

Ultimately, “improving the effectiveness of our leadership and management teams to attract and retain engaged, high-performing employees is vital to staying relevant,” Gonzalez said. “A nurtured company culture is essential to carrying employees through any uncertain times.”