When you imagine a successful CEO, a specific set of qualities might come to mind: Maybe you think of a person who went to an elite university — though their early and quick success may have prompted them to drop out. Perhaps your imaginary leader is an "alpha" type, touched by a "once-in-a-generation" type of vision that sets them apart from rank-and-file workers.
But reality might surprise you: A pair of recent studies cast doubt on these stereotypes. The greatest bosses aren't necessarily visionaries or even charismatic deal-makers, the research suggests; instead, the best leaders simply excel at the "little things," like reading employees and delivering results.
"This image of this larger-than-life, charismatic, six-foot-tall CEO that you see [in] glossy pictures turned out to not have much in common with reality," Elena Lytkina Botelho, founder of the CEO Genome Project and coauthor of one of the studies, told Mic. "It's really about your behaviors and your attitudes."
Indeed, Botelho said, while personal charisma might be why your boss landed their job, whether they will keep it is another matter.
To that end, a separate 2017 study published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes found that the best bosses were supportive and set clear expectations, "but weren't necessarily transformational leaders with grand visions."
Trying to learn leadership skills to get ahead at work? Here are the qualities to focus on developing — and the behaviors to avoid.
1. They embrace the chaos of decision-making
One of the more surprising findings in Botelho's research was that a large number of successful CEOs had made not just mistakes, but really serious ones. Almost half of them, 45%, had make a mistake that either cost them their job or was extremely costly to the business.
That just goes to show: Mistakes are rarely career-ending — even big ones.
Rather than never making any bad decisions, successful leaders need to be comfortable constantly making decisions, and accepting that some will be good and some bad.
In Botelho's study, CEOs who were described as "decisive" were 12 times more likely to be successful and high-performing than those who weren't.
2. They make dazzling people a low priority
One of the clear takeaways from both studies was that personal charisma is overrated: "Charisma definitely helps you get the job," Botelho said. "But it doesn't really help you perform."
Instead, for most leaders, the best way to keep employees motivated is not going to be pep talks or team-building events. You'll want to think more transactionally to be effective, according to Michigan State professor of management Brent Scott, a coauthor of the Organizational Behavior study.
"The contingent approach is quid pro quo — if you do this, I'll give you that," Scott said in a press release about the study. "It's not sexy like transformational leadership, but it's something that just about every manager can do because it doesn't require you to ooze charisma."
3. They keep a poker face
Another common thread from the two studies was that employees pay extremely close attention to their bosses for signals about how to act; meaning that the best leaders know how to control their emotions.
Indeed, more than 75% of the successful executives in Botelho's study demonstrated calm under pressure.
Previous research has found that leaders who project a good mood are more likely to pass those happy vibes to their employees. But, again, spreading optimism shouldn't be your full-time job: CEOs who invest too much energy in being liked are actually more likely to be low-performing, Botelho found.
The takeaway for bosses — or aspiring ones? When it comes to demonstrating emotion, less is more, and quiet positivity is your best bet.
4. They don't overcommit
The very best leaders around are reliable about following through on commitments, Botelho explained: "Folks that demonstrate reliability were 15 times more likely to be successful," she said.
Given how important it is to complete the tasks you promise you will, your expectations therefore need to be realistic; the most successful bosses prioritize achievable goals over pie-in-the-sky objectives
Indeed, great leaders spend their first month on a job settling in and talking to all stakeholders before immediately trying to "jump into execution mode."
5. They write their own rules
As you move up the pay-chain, your job gets more complicated, and you're less likely to find a decent playbook for how to act. "As a CEO you are constantly faced with situations where a playbook simply cannot exist. You'd better be ready to adapt," Dominic Barton, global managing partner of McKinsey & Company, told Harvard Business Review.
That said, being adaptable matters a lot more for some leaders than it does for other ones — and certain shortcomings don't have to be fixed.
Really bad about answering emails? Instead of changing your habits, you can learn how to delegate to an assistant: "A lot of [these skills] are situational. So if you're in a high-tech industry, the ability to adapt is really critical," Botelho said. "But for things like reliability, you may be able to hire around yourself." That's certainly better than letting unfinished commitments slip through the cracks.
In short? No one needs to be "superhuman" to be a good leader. Success is far more about your habits on the job — those little, everyday behaviors that affect how well you work with others — than your pedigree, flashy smile or any static list of skills you bring to the table.
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