Leadership survival guide: Top 7 skills to thrive as a modern CEO

August 30, 2023

upper management meeting

In the dynamic world of business, the role of a CEO has evolved to become much more complex and demanding than it was just a few years ago. The pace and intensity of change in today’s business landscape are amplified by technology, globalization and the transformational forces they bring along.

Rising competition, market volatility, regulatory requirements, workforce trends and customer expectations have all seen upheavals in recent years, and successful leaders are those who not only adapt their own practices, but who can also steer their teams through the often choppy waters of transformational change.

More than ever, leaders are required to adapt fast, build strong and balanced teams and act decisively — often with ambiguous or incomplete information.

And where shareholders were once the sole priority, now multiple stakeholders — employees, customers, families, communities, public institutions and even the planet’s well-being — influence key decisions.

Leading an organization is more complex and demanding than ever, but today’s CEOs have easier, and virtually instant, access to the tools and resources they need to master these essential skills.


Adaptability is a vital skill that enables CEOs to navigate changing business landscapes. Consider the businesses that were impacted by the pandemic, supply chain disruptions or both. Many of those that survived did so because they were able to quickly adapt, whether that meant changing over manufacturing lines from deodorant to hand sanitizer, or finding onshore sources for product ingredients when port bottlenecks slowed supply chains.

Digital transformation, remote work, the gig economy, customer reach that’s often global in scale … a quarter-century ago, these conditions were simply not the reality for most companies. Today’s CEOs must be able to pivot swiftly in response to new technologies, market shifts and global events. This skill requires an openness to new ideas, a willingness to challenge the status quo, and the ability to learn from both triumphs and setbacks.

Adaptability is about remaining agile, embracing change, and converting challenges into opportunities.

On an organizational level, it’s also about managing and communicating change, and guiding managers as they lead departments and teams toward new ways of working.

Resilience in the face of ambiguity

In an unpredictable business environment, a successful leader cultivates a sense of relative ease when dealing with uncertain situations. This doesn’t necessarily require having limitless confidence in your own abilities; rather, it’s an exercise in continuous improvement and adjustments as new information surfaces.

It also involves an understanding that you’ll likely have to make consequential decisions without all of the information you might want, anticipating that change and complexity are the new constants in business. Staying focused on goals, ensuring you have the right people in the right roles, and practicing creative problem-solving are all in a day’s work.

Leaders who tolerate ambiguity well can find opportunities in the most challenging circumstances, fostering resilience within their organizations and cultivating a sense of shared purpose from overcoming adversity.

Strategic thinking

As the chief architect of your organization's future, strategic thinking is a non-negotiable skill. It involves developing a company vision, setting meaningful objectives and crafting strategies to achieve them. A strategic CEO anticipates future trends, identifies potential opportunities and makes informed decisions that drive long-term success.

Strategic thinking and the ability to develop and implement long-term plans are essential for any CEO. Imagine a company leader who successfully pivots from a traditional business model to a digital one. Such strategic shifts require critical and divergent thinking.

Balancing the interests of shareholders with those of customers, employees and other stakeholders is a delicate act that demands decisive leadership. A CEO expects to operate a profitable company while also meeting social and environmental responsibilities.

Connection and collaboration

While the CEO is often the face of the business, wise leaders know they don’t succeed or fail alone. Engaged business leaders cultivate strong peer networks beyond the four walls of their company. They actively provide thought leadership value on social media, in the community and within business networks.

Successful CEOs also work to forge strong relationships inside the company and promote them between employees. That’s how they effectively bring together diverse perspectives and talents to build uniquely skilled teams and keep them focused on meaningful goals.

The leader sets the example and fosters a culture of teamwork, mutual respect, and shared success.

Emotional intelligence

Managing one’s own emotions and harmonizing with those of others is key to motivating, inspiring and guiding teams. Business leaders have to build a sense of psychological safety and security if they want team members to freely share their thoughts and insights. That requires active listening, empathy, an ability to read nonverbal cues and interpersonal skills that demonstrate humility and deep respect for others.

A CEO with high emotional intelligence can build strong relationships, manage stress, make sound decisions under pressure and lead with foresight about the consequences of their decisions. Emotional intelligence is a key ingredient in positive and productive workplace cultures.

Agile, informed and resolute decision-making

Leaders sometimes have to make high-impact business decisions seemingly on the fly—yet in fact, few choices are actually spur-of-the-moment. Successful CEOs are always taking in and assessing information from multiple sources through active listening, open dialogue with stakeholders, deep empathy, awareness of global and local events, and other sources of information and feedback.

That practice keeps them well informed and prepared to make sound decisions and respond quickly to changing circumstances. It also helps them communicate decisions with resolve and confidence, which inspires the same in their teams.


Effective communication is the cornerstone of good leadership. CEOs need to be able to articulate their vision and strategy clearly and convey often complex ideas in a clear and compelling way. They need to read between the lines in conversations with employees and read the room in group settings. And strong communication skills aren’t limited to one-to-one conversations, either.

Skills in written communication and presentation are also in demand — not to mention developing a compelling online presence on key social media platforms and on industry-related web forums.

Make the most of your strengths

Let’s face it: Leadership is not for the faint of heart. It requires a unique blend of skills to adapt, strategize, communicate, empathize, collaborate, tolerate ambiguity, and make decisive actions.

By honing these skills, you can help your organization adapt and thrive in a complex, interconnected and ever-evolving business landscape. As the adage goes, "The best way to predict the future is to create it." As a CEO, you are in the driver's seat to do just that.