Why Causes Us To Admire Business Leaders?

It may seem indulgent to speak with journalists for the sake of awareness (we wish politicians felt the same). These chores are usually handed off to the PR department with predictable results. The most admired CEOs like Warren Buffett are unique in the access they grant to the media, and his admiration numbers prove it.

Admiration is Awareness

If respondents were unfamiliar with a CEO, it had the same effect as not admiring them. Poor awareness can make people indifferent to a CEO’s achievements.

Character and charisma matter more than financial performance

In a booming economy, financial metrics are a commodity. The ability to focus on dimensions like employee and customer care, as well as trust, innovation, and vision, like Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, and Elon Musk do, can be a boon to admiration in up and down markets.

Women are going to play a much more significant role in the C Suite

As the survey confirms, the level of talent women bring to the C suite is higher than anyone imagined, and the effect on business will be profound.

New generations bring new ideas

As the tech gang proves, they may not have better taste, but they know what music the audience wants to hear. The lesson for old-line companies is to embed the new generation into senior management where they can inspire innovative thinking. It might rattle some cages to have a 55-year-old report to a 35-year-old, but the alternative is that someone that age will buy the company shortly.

Politics and business don’t mix

Companies like Amazon and JP Morgan know the sting of politics. Some like Jamie Dimon and Jeff Bezos rise above campaign rhetoric and maintain focus despite a challenging political environment, as their ratings prove. They teach us to wear blinders at the trough of human nature just as Mark Zuckerberg reminds us to call in sick during Senate hearings.

What can a CEO do to improve public image?

Making a speech at a climate change confab won’t necessarily change admiration. Although activists claim it will — or they might prefer a donation to the cause. These have a very fleeting effect and do little for the long term, sticky kind of admiration a CEO needs. The reason is that all companies are into good works, but some are genuinely doing it while others are virtue bragging. If you’re not Elon Musk, talking about climate change comes off as noise.


What is admiration?

The findings are a barometer of opinion from the business community. When a respondent admires a leader, she is making a statement about the kind of leader she wants to do business with or to work for.

How many respondents were there?

The Thunderbird survey polled 6,000 executives about CEOs they admired. Five hundred twelve answered the survey during the period of July — September 2019. They ranged from CEO to middle management using an iPhone or tablet/desktop.

Who were the respondents?

Our sample universe was 50,000 senior and middle management executive alums of Thunderbird, America’s top-ranked global business school. All respondents are MBA or MGM (Master of Global Management) graduates of the Thunderbird School of Global Management.

How did you choose the CEOs?

To obtain our final list of the 30 most prominent business leaders, we culled Harvard Business Review’s Best-Performing CEOs in the World 2018, Barron’s World’s Best CEOs 2019, Forbes World’s Most Reputable CEOs 2019 and Glassdoor’s Best CEOs to Work For. To be sure the final list was inclusive, we added high profile CEOs from diverse gender, ethnic, and minority backgrounds.

How did you calculate admiration ratings and rankings?

Respondents were asked to click on the CEOs they admired. If they were not familiar or did not admire, they were instructed to skip the question. The total votes were used to calculate AR or the admiration quotient.

What effect did leadership qualities play?

The Thunderbird survey identified nine attributes that result in leadership admiration like innovation, financial performance, environmental, customers, employees, vision, community, quality, and trust. We broke those down into the dimensions of trust, empathy, social responsibility, personal dynamism.


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.


Related insights