What does it take to emerge as the preeminent business luminary on a global scale? The reality is that there exists no singular blueprint for success; two equally triumphant leaders may exhibit disparate personal qualities, professional backgrounds, and skills. One may exude introversion and reserve, while another radiates extroversion and vivacity. Divergent in gender, skin color, and perhaps even spanning a four- or five-decade age disparity, successful business leaders are an eclectic assembly.
While these leaders diverge in numerous aspects, they share noteworthy commonalities. I delve into these shared attributes in my opus, “Business Icons of the 21st Century: Leaders Who Altered the World.” Herein lie five exceptional qualities.
Possess a robust vision
Vision stands as a pivotal facet in attaining business triumph. The most accomplished leaders ascend to their zenith because they meticulously delineate a vision of their aspirations and act upon it with unwavering resolve. Jeff Bezos, the visionary behind the retail behemoth Amazon, aspired to establish an online marketplace where patrons could procure anything. Mark Zuckerberg, progenitor of the social media colossus Facebook, harbored the ambition to foster a world that is more open and interconnected. Melanie Perkins, the luminary behind the Australian graphic design platform Canva, envisioned a platform democratizing design for everyone.
A potent vision propels leaders forward in defiance of adversities. Another salient aspect of vision lies in its capacity to enlist others on the odyssey. Satoshi Nakamoto, an enigmatic programmer, propounded a vision for a decentralized digital currency system that could function sans intermediaries like banks and governments. Although Nakamoto withdrew from the Bitcoin project in 2011, his compelling vision endures, testifying to its resilience amid the cryptocurrency’s notorious volatility.
How does one respond when, despite rigorous training as a master brewer, employment eludes due to gender bias? Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw confronted this quandary after her fruitless pursuit of a managerial role in India’s male-dominated brewing industry. Joblessness, a formidable setback, impelled her to channel her expertise in enzymology into a novel endeavor—establishing her biotechnology enterprise in 1978.
Today, Biocon stands as a titan in India’s biopharmaceutical landscape, and its founder has ascended as India’s inaugural self-made female billionaire. This transformation owed itself to Ms. Majumdar-Shaw’s unyielding persistence. She surmounted credibility obstacles rooted in gender, age, and a dearth of business acumen. Her journey involved grappling with funding challenges and spearheading the emergence of biotechnology as an industry in India. She persisted fueled by a passion for effecting change and a resolve to combat health inequities in impoverished regions.
Sir James Dyson, the trailblazer behind the bagless vacuum cleaner, exemplifies extraordinary perseverance. Testing over 5,000 handheld prototypes, Dyson’s resilience and willingness to glean insights from failures characterize his ascent as one of Britain’s foremost entrepreneurs. Dyson further demonstrated that tenacious leaders discern when to alter strategies. In 2019, he abandoned electric car production, cognizant that the venture would likely prove unprofitable, despite a £500 million investment.
Oftentimes, perseverance and a leader’s resolute commitment to forge ahead, irrespective of odds, form the bedrock of a triumphant career. Melanie Perkins, founder of Paintable, deems her determination in adversity a mystical superpower, asserting, “If it’s easy, it’s probably not worth doing.”
Exert diligent effort
The notion of “hard work” may be unfashionable, given its association with grave physical and mental health issues such as burnout, depression, and stress. Japan even coined the term “karoshi.” Nevertheless, an incontrovertible nexus persists between diligent effort and extraordinary business success. Elon Musk once opined on Twitter, “No one has ever changed the world just by working 40 hours a week.”
This proclamation emanates from the renowned workaholic steering the helm of Tesla and Twitter, as well as SpaceX, a spacecraft manufacturing entity. Whitney Wolfe-Herd, the luminary behind the dating app Bumble, once habitually checked emails every two hours during the night and commenced work at 4:30 a.m. Roz Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance and one of the rare black women leading a Fortune 500 company, acknowledged subsisting on a mere four or five hours of nightly sleep early in her career.
Even the 25-year-old YouTube luminary, Jimmy Donaldson, known as “MrBeast,” challenges stereotypes surrounding the “snowflake generation.” A creative virtuoso and astute entrepreneur, Donaldson refutes the notion that the younger generation lacks the fortitude and resilience of their predecessors. His ascent to global fame unfolded over years of dedicated video creation during adolescence.
However, in the realm of workaholics, it is challenging to conceive more earnest exemplars than scientists Uğur Şahin and Özlem Treci. A mere six years after their nuptials, the duo established BioNTech, a German biotechnology enterprise that pioneered a revolutionary vaccine against the coronavirus. Their commitment to their craft was so profound that on the day of their union, they promptly returned to the laboratory post-ceremony.
Cultivate a love for acquiring knowledge
Prosperous leaders frequently exhibit an insatiable curiosity and a fervor for acquiring knowledge. Musk, in his youth, delved into the contents of two encyclopedias. Bezos, a bibliophile, particularly indulges in the realms of science fiction literature. Brian Chesky, co-founder of the home-sharing platform Airbnb, ardently studies the lives of other accomplished leaders and actively seeks guidance from seasoned mentors such as Reid Hoffman and Mark Zuckerberg.
The symbiotic relationship between learning and success arises from the fact that leaders in perpetual pursuit of knowledge often bring forth innovative approaches to decision-making. Zhang Ruimin, the visionary founder of the Chinese home appliance giant Haier, melded traditional Chinese culture with the methodologies of Western management luminaries like Peter Drucker to formulate Haier’s corporate strategy. Influenced by Drucker’s ideologies, Haier introduced the groundbreaking “Rentanheyi” model, empowering teams and individuals to establish microenterprises within the broader organizational framework.
Ms. Majumdar-Xiao of Biocon harbors an ardent love for learning, assuming the role of the principal instructor at Biocon Academy, her company’s educational institution. The academy extends educational opportunities for graduates in biotechnology and engineering.
Contribute to societal welfare
Preeminent business leaders also emerge as unparalleled philanthropists. A paradigmatic example is Bill Gates, the co-founder of the software behemoth Microsoft. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates endeavors to combat poverty, disease, and inequality globally.
Diverse leaders engage in philanthropy through various avenues. Zuckerberg and his spouse, Priscilla Chan, jointly initiated the “Chan Zuckerberg Initiative,” aspiring to foster a more inclusive, equitable, and healthy society by addressing diseases, providing education, and meeting community needs. Sara Blakely, the American entrepreneur behind the shapewear brand Spanx, established her foundation to champion women through entrepreneurship, education, and the arts.
Despite his youth, the YouTube luminary Donaldson is already a recognized philanthropist. Many of his videos incorporate a charitable aspect, such as funding eye surgeries for individuals with severe cataracts to restore their vision. He founded Beast Philanthropy, his charitable organization, which distributes food to communities facing food insecurity, with a commitment to donate his entire fortune before his demise.
Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the American outdoor company Patagonia, stands as an exemplar of benevolence. In 2022, he and his family opted to transfer ownership of Patagonia, then valued at approximately $3 billion, to a nonprofit trust. The rationale is that Patagonia will persist as a for-profit entity while utilizing future profits to preserve nature, support communities, and combat the environmental crisis. “The Earth is now our sole shareholder,” affirmed Patagonia in a statement.
The esoteric essence of success
Naturally, triumphant business leaders possess myriad other attributes beyond those aforementioned. Proficiency in attracting, motivating, and retaining talent, coupled with the ability to construct robust teams and collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, is imperative. Additionally, they must adeptly engage with investors to secure pivotal capital essential for their company’s strategic realization.
Another pivotal quality is their willingness to confront failure and embrace risks with a sanguine disposition. Flourishing leaders establish lofty standards and challenge the boundaries of what is conceivable, ultimately birthing products and services that transform the world.
Yet, perhaps what elevates successful business leaders markedly above their peers is their extraordinary sense of purpose. This impels them to toil diligently and withstand formidable pressures in the pursuit of their vision. They ardently believe that, irrespective of their endeavors, they are contributing to making the world a better place.