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Steve Jobs, Sam Walton, Mary Kay Ash: What Makes A Successful CEO?

Richard Tedlow on the Walker Webcast

For the past 100 years, CEOs and business leaders have all struggled with one major question: What makes a great leader? Is it their character? Their strength and determination? The way they treat their employees?

While there are several characteristics that make a great leader, Richard Tedlow, author and professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, believes he has found one characteristic that binds some of the top CEOs of the past several decades together: charisma. 

Tedlow specializes in the history of business and has written several books, including Giants of Enterprise, The Watson Dynasty and his most recent book, The Emergence of Charismatic Business Leadership, in which he examines a number of high-profile individuals who have transformed the face of modern-day leadership, including Steve Jobs, Mary Kay Ash and Sam Walton, and explores how they used their charisma to help them succeed. 

Tedlow was the guest on this week’s Walker Webcast, and he and Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker discussed his latest book and broke down what he believes helps make a great leader. 

Tedlow said he was inspired to write the book on Oct. 5, 2011, which was the day Steve Jobs died. In 2010, Tedlow was recruited to come out to Apple to join its internal executive education program, which is called Apple University, and he said he was shocked at the number of condolence messages from around the world the company received when Jobs died. 

“It struck me, being a historian and having read books about funerals of CEOs going all the way back to the early 19th century United States, that nothing like this had ever happened before,” Tedlow said. “History is the story of change over time, and this clearly represented a change.” 

In his book, Tedlow says the definition of charisma is amorphous, but he calls it “the gift of grace.” Jobs, he admits, may not always have been considered someone with grace, but he had the charm, guile, brilliance or even cruelty to inspire people to do the best work of their lives, which is what made him the perfect example of charisma.

One prime example of this charisma can be found in Apple’s iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad introducing the Mac, which was produced by Ridley Scott and blew people away, despite the fact that it didn’t tell viewers anything about the product. 

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker on the Walker Webcast

Walker pointed out that several of the leaders Tedlow profiles, including Jobs, Elon Musk, Walton and Oprah Winfrey, had difficult childhoods. Tedlow cited a quote from author T.D. Jakes: “When you hold on to your history, you do it at the expense of your destiny." He said that particularly resonated with Winfrey and that he believes it sums up how many of these leaders were able to succeed despite their difficult upbringings. 

“They were not intimidated by the problems they had had in the past,” Tedlow said. “And they didn't change their core belief in themselves. The greatest sale that all these people made, at the end of the day, was selling themselves to themselves.” 

Tedlow then mentioned Walton, the founder of Sam’s Club and Walmart, who also happened to be a great athlete. He said that athletics can instill a sense of competition in people, as well as a desire to come back and win despite being an underdog, which may help leaders succeed. 

Walton, Tedlow said, made his people heroes and as a result, they made him a hero, something he refers to as mutuality of affect. Tedlow said that Walton loved people and they loved him and he was an expert at underpromising and overdelivering, which is something many of these leaders shared  — the ability to give people more than what they expected. 

He moved on to talk about Ash, the founder of Mary Kay cosmetics, who said that every time she encountered someone, she would imagine them holding a big sign that said, “Make me feel important,” which is what she always aimed to do. She referred to her employees as consultants, similar to how Walton called his employees associates, which Tedlow said helps them feel like they are part of building a team and helping their customers: They aren't just selling, he said, they’re serving. 

Walker closed out by asking Tedlow what is the piece of charismatic leadership that CEOs or aspiring CEOs should work on honing. Tedlow said that above all else, CEOs need to ask themselves: What am I passionate about? 

“That's the question you've got to answer,” Tedlow said. “Because if you can't answer it for yourself, you're not going to be able to answer it for your people.” 

On Oct. 20, Walker will host Ivy Zelman, CEO of Zelman & Associates. Register here for the event. 

This article was produced in collaboration between Walker & Dunlop and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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