6 Lessons to Learn from the Smartest CEOs in the World

When we think of the biggest CEOs on the planet, we might think about power and money or even mega yachts and space rockets. But what about PhD degrees, Ivy League universities, and impressive vocabularies? Although not all successful CEOs are book smart, some of the biggest names on the list — Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk, for example — also make the grade in the intelligence department.

A recent study on the smartest CEOs in America watched YouTube videos of public presentations by executives and used linguistic patterns to evaluate their intellect. In addition to ranking CEOs by intelligence, the study identified business leaders who score high on emotional intelligence, team-orientation, customer-focus, and positive attitude. Here we cover which traits the best CEOs exhibit and what we can learn from them.

The 5 Most Intelligent CEOs in America

Before we see what lessons they have for us, let’s meet the smartest CEOs in America.

With talk of AI dominating the news these days, perhaps it’s only fitting that the most intelligent CEO in the country works in artificial intelligence. The man who leads his peers in the smarts department is AI researcher and PhD neuroscientist Demis Hassabis. The CEO of DeepMind, an AI research laboratory that was later acquired by Google, Hassabis scores an impressive 87.33/100.

The 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place CEOs on this list all come from the field of investment banking. Financial wizards Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone scores 74.33, Warren E. Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway scores 74.00, and David M. Solomon of Goldman Sachs scores 71.33.

Rounding out the top 5 is Jeff Bezos with 71.00. The Amazon founder and all-around business innovator isn’t just smart, however. He also made the top 20 lists for executives with high emotional intelligence and outstanding focus on the customer. His foresight, adaptability, and insightfulness all add up to exceptional leadership qualities.

The 6 Things We Can Learn from Them

1. Act Decisively

Although the old proverb “he who hesitates is lost” wasn’t originally about business, it certainly applies to CEOs. We all know highly intelligent people who excel at research and planning, but then have tremendous trouble making a decision. The best CEOs, however, know that sometimes a bad decision is better than indecision. Slow decision making can lead to work bottlenecks, frustrated stakeholders, and lost opportunities. While information gathering is important, successful executives are comfortable making decisions even when they don’t have perfect information.

2. Influence Others

The most powerful CEOs know how to motivate, excite, and get buy-in from others within the organization — and outside of it as well. In order to bring everyone else along, they must have an astute understanding of what pulls people in and what puts them off. That’s where emotional intelligence comes into play. The ability to regulate your emotions and understand the feelings of others, as well as to foster social connections and nurture relationships are valuable skills for managing others.

So which executives have a higher emotional intelligence quotient (EQ) than the rest? This ranking used “I” statements, which tend to promote more effective communication and collaboration in the workplace. For example, instead of saying, “Your idea won’t work,” emotionally intelligent managers will say something like, “I have some concerns about this direction. Can we discuss our perspectives?” Based on this measure, the leader on the EQ chart is CEO Tricia Griffith of Progressive.

3. Be Resilient

Every CEO, especially those who are out there making the high-stakes decisions, will fail from time to time. But smart business leaders stand strong in the face of adversity and use failure as an opportunity to improve their approach. At the executive level, the importance of being able to adapt to new challenges without becoming overwhelmed can’t be understated. CEOs almost by definition are constantly juggling a barrage of competing priorities that are always changing. Emotional resilience and proactive adaptability are two traits that help the best executives weather the constant storms.

4. Deliver Reliably

While there are many ways to get results — innovation, teambuilding, leveraging new technology — the smartest CEOs make sure to deliver consistently. Just as professional athletic coaches may all have different strategies, workouts, and relationships with their team, they all eventually need to win games in order to be considered successful.

That said, the best CEOs (and the best coaches, for that matter) focus just as much of their time on long-term plans as short-term goals. A true leader can keep an eye on the big picture without letting short-term priorities get in the way of achieving their end goal.

5. Stay humble

Ineffective leaders take credit for achievements and blame others for failures. Effective leaders, on the other hand, acknowledge the hard work of their team in successes and can accept personal responsibility when things don’t turn out as planned.

Similarly, smart CEOs also never stray too far from the experience of the customer. That’s why many CEOs used to start out in sales — they know exactly what the customer wants, needs, and likes or doesn’t like. The further executives get from the customer experience, the less likely they are to make decisions that make sense to the customer.

Which leader does this best, according to the study? Rodney McMullen of Kroger was the top customer-focused CEO.

6. Keep learning

Finally, the best CEOs know that the game is never over. If you want to keep succeeding, you have to keep learning, adapting, and growing. This is true both on a business level and a personal level.

In fact, one of the key traits of the smartest CEOs was “contextual relevance,” or their ability to connect the topic at hand with broader contexts or other fields. Keeping abreast of trends in your industry is important, of course, but so is knowing about the economy, psychology, and emerging technologies.

In short, successful leaders know that they don’t know it all. Even the smartest CEOs surround themselves with diversity of thought. If you only have like-minded employees that are “yes men,” it is harder to see your blind spots or come up with alternative perspectives.

The Bottom Line

While there is no one trait that guarantees C-suite success, taking some pointers from the world’s smartest executives can help all of us up our game — no matter where in the organizational hierarchy we currently find ourselves.

Read next: Gartner Unveils 2024 Tech Trends — GenAI Takes the Lead
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