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

The most admired leadership qualities are “magic wands” or “halos.”

Magic wands bring to mind leaders like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. The two iconic change-makers seem to be able to point at goals like shared music and electric vehicles and “presto” they became realities. That expresses the essence of what we admire in a leader. The “halo” attributes refer to things like corporate social responsibility that may give people a greater sense of purpose.

  1. Quality commitment
  2. Trustworthy
  3. Customer care
  4. Employee care
  5. Visionary
  6. Innovation
  7. Environmental responsibility
  8. Financial performance
  9. Community involvement

The Top Attribute for the Most Admired CEO

The chart shows the main source of admiration for each CEO.

The findings reveal that admiration is correlated with high levels of trust, employee and customer care, and high-quality products. The reason is simple. These are “CEO-centric,” meaning they are traceable back to a leader’s thinking and policies. People are likely to give them credit for these qualities, whereas a leader focused on social causes may not benefit as much.

The Most Admired Dimensions

We took the nine attributes and condensed them into five dimensions: Trust and Reliability, Empathy (for employees and customers), Personal Dynamism (innovation, creativity, and vision), Social Responsibility (environment and community), and Wall Street (financial performance).

The conclusion is that admiration is like author Han Suyin’s famous novel, a many-splendored thing, and most correlated with trust, empathy, and personal dynamism. These are useful as a guide to what people like, who they invest with, and want to work for.

The Top CEOs By Attribute

We also looked at each leadership quality and ranked the best performing CEOs.

  • Buffett’s admiration is unprecedented across all dimensions, including social responsibility, where he ties Tim Cook for #1.
  • Given Tim Cook’s relatively short tenure compared to Buffett and Bezos, his rank of first or second in trust, customer care, and social responsibility, is a great showing.
  • Bezos is a brilliant leader who has made his mark in dynamic qualities like innovation and vision.
  • Jamie Dimon is the only banker to make it into the top five.
  • Elon Musk is one of three CEOs to make it to the top five across all dimensions.
  • Satya Nadella scores high on all dimensions even as he competes against CEOs with longer tenures like Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos.
  • Ginni Rometty’s (social responsibility) and Sundar Pichai’s (employee care) appearance in the top five suggests they have staked out their territory and are seeing results.


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,, 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