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Thunderbird 2019 CEO Survey — America’s “Most Admired CEOs”

October 16, 2019

Co-authors: Sanjeev Khagram, Ph.D. and Jeff Cunningham, Professor of Practice

According to the new Thunderbird survey, tech is cool, but trust is better — and Warren Buffett understands how to do both.

 

Thunderbird 2019 CEO Survey

Warren Buffett, the contrarian investing sage, was hailed America’s “Most Admired CEO.” He also received the highest rating in dimensions of trust, empathy, and personal dynamism. The findings are from our recent survey at the Thunderbird School of Global Managementat Arizona State University and 24/7 Wall Street. The goal of the study is to evaluate the leadership of our largest and most dynamic companies.

Why does admiration matter?

Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have had tough years. So why is one still turning out great cars while the other squirms at Senate hearings? One reason is that public opinion determines whether you get to create things and take risks. Innovation may seem like luck, but it is the result of confidence in the leader. Reduce admiration and a decline in innovation will follow.

Buffett scores his age

Buffett once joked that his popularity was due to age: “Just wait until I’m 100 like George Burns, then people will really love me.” The survey discovered the truth behind his buoyant public image. Fifty-five years after reincarnating Berkshire Hathaway into the world’s most exceptional business from a defunct textile maker, Buffett continues to do things that set him apart from other CEOs.

Rankings and pairings

Over 500 executives were surveyed and asked to select the CEOs they admired out of 30 prominent business leaders. The final vote converts into admiration or AQ; these are compared to arrive at a ranking. Then we match admiration with nine leadership attributes to learn which pairings were consistent and which were anomalies. For example, 37% of Warren Buffett‘s admirers think trust is the #1 factor in leadership. It suggests that trust drives a good deal of his admiration.

Also of interest:

#1 Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway)

Warren Buffett with Bill Gates at 2015 shareholder meeting (Photo: Jon Carrasco)

If you’re sponsoring an admiration contest, be sure to invite Warren Buffett. The survey findings reveal that he outranked everyone from wunderkinder like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to tech supernova Elon Musk. The Oracle of Omaha also came in at #1 across nine qualities ranging from employee care to visionary leadership.

What’s his secret?

His pairings were a litany of superlatives — 85% of those who value quality also admired Buffett the most. 92% who like visionaries felt the same way, and “trust” is where his star shines the brightest, with 94% of respondents giving him top honors. The Thunderbird survey shows that Buffett is like a great Burgundy, he pairs well with everything — or he might say, like a Cherry Coke.

Why we trust him

One reason people believe what Buffett says is that he goes out of his way to be transparent, even at his own expense. Strangers who meet him on the streets of Omaha ask why he drives to McDonald’s for breakfast when he could afford anything? They learn that Buffett’s biggest luxury is saving time: he likes the taste, it’s cheap, and it’s on his way to Berkshire.

Even hard-bitten business cynics turn into Buffett fans when they listen to the mix of Ben Franklinesque wisdom and trenchant humor. It doesn’t inflate his ego as a CEO, however. His antidote is to ask shareholders at the love fest called Berkshire’s annual meeting to scrutinize everything he says. He begins by taking off the halo on his head and replacing it with a dunce cap as he recounts his stock market “whiffs” in front of 50,000 shareholders.

Why is trust so important?

To paraphrase Lincoln, with trust, “nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.” It also explains how Buffett wins over tech elites like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook, where Buffett is now the second-largest shareholder. It also explains his long standing relationship with philanthropic buddy Bill Gates. The factor that gets him into the inner sanctum of Silicon Valley is the high level of trust he inspires. They do deals with him that one else gets. They give him the best advice on tech most of us dream about. It suggests those who believe Buffett is technophobic are underestimating him. He’s techno-savvy.

Should CEOs try to imitate Buffett?

The image of most CEOs is lukewarm by comparison. It confirms what great journalists like Fortune’s Carol Loomis have long said: Buffett is his own brand. We are wise to emulate but smarter not to compete. As former GE CEO Jeff Immelt said, “Lots of CEOs got fired for acting like Warren Buffett.” Buffett’s #1 rating in the 2019 Thunderbird survey at the tender age of 89 teaches us another lesson: When you finally arrive, don’t stop.

#2 Tim Cook (Apple)

Photo: Apple

Tim Cook ranked at #2 behind Warren Buffett across most leadership attributes and ties with him at #1 in environmental responsibility and financial performance. Cook comes in #2 in employee care and trust, where he matches JP Morgan’s Jamie Dimon. The findings suggest Cook has unique markers that have moved him outside the shadow of Apple’s iconic founder.

#3 Jeff Bezos (Amazon)

Photo: Amazon

Jeff Bezos ranked #3 overall, but when quality, innovation, and vision are factored, he is at #2, just below Warren Buffett and ahead of Tim Cook. Along the way to his stellar admiration, Bezos created one of the world’s most exceptional businesses based on a simple but revolutionary idea that online beats going to the mall. It is a fact of business today, but some may forget he was speaking to an empty hall when he founded the company back in 1994. Five years later, Barron’s published a cover story claiming Bezos was deluding shareholders and called it “Amazon.bomb.” The company’s share price plummeted to $5.

To say that Bezos recovered might be the world’s most delicious understatement. In the interim, he performed not just an economic miracle but a humanitarian one. With over 600,000 employees, he is CEO of a job-creation machine that changes lives across many communities that owe their rebirth to an Amazon facility.

#4 Elon Musk (Tesla)

Photo: Heisenberg Media

Elon Musk ranked as the #4 most admired CEO, inspires us to want to tweet: “Leadership secured.” Digging into the data, we wanted to know if the dustup with the SEC led to a decline in Musk’s rating. So we pulled respondents who think trust is essential in a leader and correlated it with Musk’s admiration. We found that trust worshippers ranked Musk #5, ahead of Satya Nadella and Reed Hastings. Also, consider his drop from #4 is due to Jamie Dimon’s trust factor going off the charts to #2. It shows the SEC barely diminished the Tesla founder’s credibility. Could it be the agency has admiration challenges after Bernie Madoff and Enron? When “care for employees” is factored into Musk’s admiration, he rises to #2, revealing the chief designer has his priorities straight. Musk may have lost the boardroom battle, but he wins on the terrain where people and innovation meet.

#5 Satya Nadella (Microsoft)

Photo: Microsoft


Satya Nadella was ranked by respondents #5 out of 30, demonstrating he has restored the glory that hearkens back to the Bill Gates era. His admiration is consistent across all nine dimensions, except for customer care, where he drops to #10. Given his outstanding ratings, acquired during the last few years of Microsoft’s rebound, he should be able to surmount them in short order.

#6 Jamie Dimon (JP Morgan)

Photo: Steve Jurvetson


Ranked #6, Jamie Dimon’s stewardship of JP Morgan during and after the financial crisis is widely acknowledged as brilliant. Nonetheless, Dimon’s score was still a surprise. He is the eminence grise of the banking elite, and his wise counsel in his annual chairman’s letter is the best prose in business. But bankers are rarely held in high regard these days. Despite Elizabeth Warren’s campaign rants, Dimon’s admiration is a testament to his trust factor, which he is in a tie with Tim Cook for #2. The survey shows Dimon is venturing where no banker has gone before, except his namesake, the original JP Morgan.

#7 Reed Hastings (Netflix)

Photo: Publica from Germany


Reed Hastings scored a solid #7. His fundamental attributes are rock-solid on admiration, but the details may not be particularly well known. The one area where Hastings rises above his trendline is community involvement, where he climbs to #4. Since Netflix is synonymous with home entertainment, it could be that the streaming media company has become the home and hearth of the community. If so, the credit for vision and tenacity goes to Hastings, who founded the company back in 1997.

#7 Sundar Pichai (Google)

Pichai with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: Indian Prime Minister’s Office)


Sundar Pichai tied with Reed Hastings for #7, a great showing when the past year is taken into account. Under his leadership, Google’s vaunted innovation machine was able to plow through challenges that crept up from EU antitrust fines to employee protests and Women’s Walks. His performance at the Senate hearings set a standard for thoughtful commentary in what has become a digital danger zone for most CEOs. When we looked at the attributes that underly Pichai‘s ratings, he rises to #6 when innovation is the factor and #4 for employee care.

#8 Robert Iger (Disney)

Disney CEO Robert Iger with Oprah Winfrey (Photo: Disney)


Robert Iger scored at #8, a rating that is consistent across the nine attributes. We read this as a sign that Iger’s leadership has solidified around a formula that works, which comes as no surprise. His ranking suffers when matched against product quality, sliding to #18. Disney’s products are world-class. We take that to mean Iger may need a closer association with the product side, as his predecessor, Michael Eisner, was able to do.

#8 Mary Barra (GM)

Photo: GM


Mary Barra scored #8, a tie with Disney’s Robert Iger. She also came in as the highest-ranking female CEO. When we paired Barra’s admiration with product quality or customer care, she rose to #5. If automotive CEOs were the algorithms, Barra would be the best selling app. Her score suggests she will give Elon Musk a run for his money after the company introduces “at least 20 new all-electric vehicles that will launch by 2023.”

#9 Ginni Rometty (IBM)

Meeting with President Trump (Photo: The White House)

Ginni Rometty ranked #9 among CEOs but rose to #6 when care for the environment was the main factor, and #7 when respondents chose employee responsibility. When we consider her role as steward of a formidable talent base, her challenges of navigating the ultra-competitive world of enterprise and cloud technology, there isn’t a better set of leadership qualities.

#9 Marc Benioff (Salesforce)

Marc Benioff

Photo: Salesforce


Marc Benioff came in at #9 overall but moves to #7 when financial performance is the main ingredient. Although Benioff scores a solid rating, it may seem below par compared to his more famous tech brethren. But his tie with IBM’s Ginni Rometty speaks volumes about his admiration level, and for an enterprise business model, a huge win.

#10 Fred Smith (FedEx)

Fred Smith

Photo: FedEx


Fred Smith ranked #10. His storied career began with a revolutionary vision for FedEx in 1971 after he wrote a Harvard thesis on logistics, then bootstrapped the company with a $4 million inheritance. Survey respondents gave Smith a rank of #5 when they take local community involvement into account, and for those who revere innovative leaders, he’s #7. To many, Fred Smith represents the best of business.

For more information on conclusions and methodology see here.


Co-authors:

Sanjeev Khagram is a world-renowned scholar in global business studies. He holds a doctoral degree in economics and a doctorate in political economy from Stanford University. Khagram is a Hindu and a refugee from Idi Amin’s Uganda. He is Managing Director and Dean of the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Jeff Cunningham is the former publisher of Forbes Magazine, former CEO of Elon Musk’s first startup, Zip2.com, managing director of Schroder Ventures IFP fund, founder of NACD Directorship Magazine, and a professor of practice in global leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter andLinkedIn.

Thunderbird School of Global Management

Thunderbird School of Global Management is in the vanguard of global leadership, management, and business education for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A unit of the Arizona State University, Thunderbird has a global alumni network of over 45,000 leaders worldwide and provides a network of global Centers of Excellence in Geneva, Moscow, Dubai, Nairobi, Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.

The Most Admired CEO survey was conducted by Thunderbird School of Global Management in cooperation with 24/7 Wall St.

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