Assess the strength of your organization’s leadership culture    | 

Assess your leadership culture  |

The Hidden Realities Of Becoming An Executive Leader

Note: A version of this was previously published on Forbes.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked in my work with high-potential leaders is: What does it really take to become an executive-level leader?

Becoming an executive can represent an amazing career opportunity. However, success is not guaranteed. I have found that, through my own executive roles and in collaborating with seasoned executives from around the world, there is a lot to the role that is not always apparent. Many things are implicit, and you only learn about them through being in the role and trial and error.

Here are some hidden elements of being an effective and successful executive leader that I have learned in my career. I summarize them below using the acronym: EXECUTIVE.

E: Embrace real ownership.

Many new executives fail to grasp how critical personal ownership is to their success. They may understand it intellectually but may not grasp it in a visceral sense. What this means is that you must take full ownership of outcomes—both the successes and failures. This level of accountability is at the heart of an effective executive, underlining a leader’s commitment to their role and their responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions.

X: eXercise grounded realism.

Executives must have an unwavering commitment to reality. You will need to engage with the world as it is, not as you wish it to be. So, you need to ensure you have a clear understanding of the current reality of situations. You will need to manage your emotional reactions as they can serve to blind you to what is really going on. It means surrounding yourself with a team who has the courage to tell you the truth.

This realism is the bedrock upon which all sound decision-making rests, demanding a leader’s keen ability to distinguish fact from fiction. It also means courageously facing the hard facts of any situation without sugarcoating. It is about a relentless pursuit of truth, which forms the cornerstone of genuine leadership accountability.

E: Expect high standards.

Executive leadership requires expecting and maintaining high standards and being uncompromising about them. Leaders must set the bar high, not only for themselves but also for everyone around them, fostering a culture of excellence and accountability at all levels. It also means addressing issues if others fail to meet the standards.

C: Commit to tackling tough issues.

It is critical to be decisively committed to the hard aspects of leadership. As I write in my book, The Leadership Contract, too many leaders, even at the executive level, avoid this hard work. You will need to have the ability and confidence to make difficult business decisions, have tough conversations, speak truth to power, address thorny people issues and provide candid feedback to people.

U: Uphold exemplary behavior.

Setting an example is a non-negotiable aspect of executive leadership. It is about embodying the very values and standards you expect from others. This demonstration of personal integrity and dedication is a guiding light for the entire organization. It is being calm in the face of adversity. It is recognizing that you do not become the crisis in a crisis. It is always coming off as an executive and having the presence and aura.

T: Trust with oversight.

You will need to trust others, as this will be critical for your success. But you must verify things even if you do not have the expertise. Blind trust will lead to problems. This applies to a range of stakeholders: team members, contractors, partners and even customers. Having a bit of skepticism is helpful.

I: Intuition will guide you.

Leveraging your intuition and gut feelings is important even in a data-driven world. Utilizing intuition effectively means balancing hard data with the nuanced understanding that comes from experience, particularly in complex and unprecedented situations.

What helps is reading broadly, having a curiosity about business and how companies work, and using this knowledge to question when something seems off. When that feeling in your gut tells you something is missing in a conversation or situation, then you must act on it. Explore the issue to determine whether you need to pay attention to it.

V: Value business and financial acumen.

The health of the business is on you. You have a fiduciary obligation to ensure the company is strong across several key variables. Having a keen interest in how business works and understanding a business’s financial and data side is critical—it must excite and jazz you up. Leverage this knowledge to anticipate issues and make good business decisions. It also means finding opportunities to build greater business and financial acumen among the team.

E: Endure in tough times.

Leadership is much easier when things are going well. The real test of leadership happens when challenges arise. That is when your leadership is really evaluated. You will be carrying the weight of the company. You will need resilience and personal resolve to ensure you can navigate challenges, embodying the spirit of perseverance and strength. It is also helpful to understand how to manage your emotions and personal stress. And build a personal community of people you can go to for inspiration, advice and wise counsel.

Many of the elements required to be a successful executive are often hidden beneath the surface of the role. Ascending to executive leadership demands embracing ownership, realism, high standards and the resolve to face tough issues. Success hinges on setting a strong example, balancing trust with verification and blending intuition with analytical insight. Financial acumen and the ability to endure challenges are also critical. These are all critical to not only rising to an executive position but also ensuring you thrive once you are in the role.

About Leadership Contract

We are Leadership Contract Inc (LCI), your partner in strategic leadership development. We help you operationalize leadership accountability at all levels of your organization so you can drive strategy, shape culture, and spark change.

Follow Us

Drive strategy, culture, and change

We help you scale leadership accountability across your organization.

It is the fastest way to help leaders successfully navigate their most complex business and leadership challenges.

Boost Your Organizations Performance and Culture

Register for our webinar to dive into our recent research.

You’ll learn how Leadership Accountability transforms organizational cultures and creates high-performing organizations.

See the impact of our research

Accountable leadership is a key differentiator in strong business performance vs average or low performance....
Frank explains how multiple, significant changes in the industry are requiring his organization to operate,...
This ebook reveals why leadership development programs are failing to deliver value and the 4...

Leadership Culture Assessment

Fill out the form below for insights into the strength of your organization's leadership culture.

Tangible leadership ideas for CEOs, CHROs, and senior leaders

Sign-up for our latest news and thought leadership.