Published: April 16, 2011
New York Times

This article was adapted from “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” by Adam Bryant, author of the weekly “Corner Office” column in The New York Times. The book, published Tuesday by Times Books, analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders.

IMAGINE 100 people working at a large company. They’re all middle managers, around 35 years old. They’re all smart. All collegial. All hard-working. They all have positive attitudes. They’re all good communicators.

So what will determine who gets the next promotion, and the one after that? Which of them, when the time comes, will get that corner office?

In other words, what does it take to lead an organization — whether it’s a sports team, a nonprofit, a start-up or a multinational corporation? What are the X factors?

Interviews I conducted with more than 70 chief executives and other leaders for Corner Office in The New York Times point to five essentials for success — qualities that most of those C.E.O.’s share and look for in people they hire.

The good news: these traits are not genetic. It’s not as if you have to be tall or left-handed. These qualities are developed through attitude, habit and discipline — factors that are within your control. They will make you stand out. They will make you a better employee, manager and leader. They will lift the trajectory of your career and speed your progress.

These aren’t theories. They come from decades of collective experience of top executives who have learned firsthand what it takes to succeed. From the corner office, they can watch others attempt a similar climb and notice the qualities that set people apart. These C.E.O.’s offered myriad lessons and insights on the art of managing and leading, but they all shared five qualities: Passionate curiosity. Battle-hardened confidence. Team smarts. A simple mind-set. Fearlessness.

What follows are excerpts from chapters on each of them.

Passionate Curiosity

Many successful chief executives are passionately curious people. It is a side of them rarely seen in the media and in investor meetings, and there is a reason for that. In business, C.E.O.’s are supposed to project confidence and breezy authority as they take an audience through their projections of steady growth. Certainty is the game face they wear. They’ve cracked the code.

But get them away from these familiar scripts, and a different side emerges. They share stories about failures and doubts and mistakes. They ask big-picture questions. They wonder why things work the way they do and whether those things can be improved upon. They want to know people’s stories, and what they do.

It’s this relentless questioning that leads entrepreneurs to spot new opportunities and helps managers understand the people who work for them, and how to get them to work together effectively. It is no coincidence that more than one executive uttered the same phrase when describing what, ultimately, is the C.E.O.’s job: “I am a student of human nature.”

The C.E.O.’s are not necessarily the smartest people in the room, but they are the best students — the letters could just as easily stand for “chief education officer.”

“You learn from everybody,” said Alan R. Mulally, the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company. “I’ve always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around — why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, what didn’t work.”

Why “passionate curiosity”? The phrase is more than the sum of its parts, which individually fall short in capturing the quality that sets these C.E.O.’s apart. There are plenty of people who are passionate, but many of their passions are focused on just one area. There are a lot of curious people in the world, but they can also be wallflowers.

But “passionate curiosity” — a phrase used by Nell Minow, the co-founder of the Corporate Library — better captures the infectious sense of fascination that some people have with everything around them.

Passionate curiosity, Ms. Minow said, “is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more.”

Though chief executives are paid to have answers, their greatest contributions to their organizations may be asking the right questions. They recognize that they can’t have the answer to everything, but they can push their company in new directions and marshal the collective energy of their employees by asking the right questions.

It's a long one. Page 2 starts here:

I thought to post this for my two buddies who seem to believe the government should run corporations.