8 leadership lessons from the world’s powerhouse CEOs

Some of the world’s top CEOs teach us a thing or two about good leadership – and how it can make or break a company’s success.

1. Set a moral and ethical example
Magda Wierzycka, CEO of Sygnia Asset Management

Magda Wierzycka models how business can be ethical. Photo courtesy of Sygnia Asset Management.

Magda Wierzycka has taken impressive and controversial (among some) stands against corruption in the South African public and private sectors – despite taking heat and ruffling the feathers of the financial services industry.

Since 1993, she’s worked in a traditionally male-dominated field, rising in the ranks to be one of South Africa’s richest women. When word broke that taxpayers paid for the Gupta wedding at Sun City with the collusion of international accounting firm KPMG (the auditors have been accused of being players in State Capture), Wierzycka fired KPMG as her company’s auditors.

Wierzycka is adamant that if there were no willing conspirators within private companies (particularly multinational corporations), corruption would not have reached the staggering levels it has in South Africa. She encourages businesses to speak out and refuse to perpetrate underhanded dealings.

Her childhood story shows the roots of Wierzycka’s strength and determination: she arrived in South Africa from Poland at age 13, having spent a year in a refugee camp in Austria. Magda’s parents were doctors, and refugees from the communist regime in Poland that was collapsing under political sanctions.

Wierzycka learned English and Afrikaans before studying actuarial science at the University of Cape Town (since it was the only degree to offer a full bursary to cover tuition). Today, she is the CEO of a R1,6 billion asset management company. But she puts her own money where her conscience is – a valuable lesson for all leaders.

2. No leader makes it on their own
Chris Gardner, CEO of Gardner Rich & Co

Once homeless and now a powerful CEO, Chris Gardner is proof that perseverance – and help from others – is key to success. Photo from

During the early 1980s, Gardner struggled with homelessness while raising his toddler son – his story “The Pursuit of Happyness” later became a book of memoirs and a Hollywood movie starring Will Smith.

His driving attitude is one of gratitude. At a commencement speech at University of California in Berkeley, he told graduates:

“Everybody got here today because somebody helped them. And I want you to consider something else – there was somebody else who’s not here today, who helped you get to where you are. Maybe this person was a high-school teacher, a counsellor, or maybe it was someone who just worked in a school who saw in you something that maybe at some point you did not see in yourself. And I want to ask you today – to reach out to that person. Don’t call them, go see them. Shake their hands, hug them, laugh with them, cry with them and say, ‘Thank You’.”

No leader is a silo. The best ones rely on others, encourage growth and show a true thankfulness for those who have helped them get to the top.

3. It pays to treat women and families well
Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO

Susan Wojcicki, the most powerful woman in advertising knows that treating women and families well is good for business. Photo from Twitter.

She’s been called “the most powerful woman in advertising” – holding top positions at YouTube and its parent company, Google Inc. (in fact, she rented her garage as the early headquarters of Stanford students Larry Page and Sergey Brin and later became Google’s 16th employee).

Wojcicki was the first Google employee to get pregnant. Undaunted, she took the opportunity to shape the tech giant’s parental leave policy, and later pushed for the rest of the business world to follow suit:

“When we increased paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks in 2007, the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50%. We also increased paternity leave to 12 weeks from seven, as we know that also has a positive effect on families and our business.”

In 2007, Google’s share price peaked at $714.

4. Human-driven companies change the world
Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX

Elon Musk: inventor, entrepreneur and change maker. Photo from Sky News.

Born in South Africa, Elon Musk has invested his time and money into ideas that change the world – PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX, to name a few. His actions show a motivation and commitment to his personal mission and values; he tries his best to solve problems (such as climate change and the high costs of space transportation) through invention and innovation – rather than being focused solely on profits.

The proof? While Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos also have huge investments in space tourism, when Musk was asked why he wanted to send people to Mars, he answered that it was important to make humans a multi-planetary species because there is likely to be an extinction event on Earth – and he wants to save the human species.

A CEO who wakes up every morning asking himself how to serve the world in a unique way is a powerful thing – it can be the catalyst for a more humane economy, where humanity’s health and wellbeing are the driving motivation for business.

5. Focus means learning when to say ‘no’
Steve Jobs, Apple CEO and co-founder

Tech legend, Steve Jobs, grew Apple into one of the world’s most valuable companies from his parents’ garage. Photo from the cover of Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson.

Steve Jobs cofounded Apple in his parents’ garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985 and returned to rescue it from near bankruptcy in 1997. Yet by the time of his death in 2011, Apple was the world’s most valuable company. How did he do it?

When Jobs returned to a struggling Apple in 1997, it was making about a dozen different versions of the Macintosh:

“‘Stop, this is crazy,’ said Jobs. He grabbed a Magic Marker, padded in his bare feet to a whiteboard, and drew a two-by-two grid,” writes biographer, Walter Isaacson, for the Harvard Business Review.

“‘Here’s what we need,’ he declared. Atop the two columns, he wrote ‘Consumer’ and ‘Pro’. He labeled the two rows ‘Desktop’ and ‘Portable.’ Their job, he told his team members, was to focus on four great products, one for each quadrant. All other products should be cancelled. There was a stunned silence.”

But by getting Apple to focus on making only four computers, Jobs saved the company. “Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he told Isaacson. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products”.

6. Potential is more important than qualifications or past achievements
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba

Jack Ma’s story of success shows persistence and potential are crucial for leadership. Photo from

Alibaba founder Jack Ma was rejected from 30 jobs – including a job at KFC – and flunked his university entrance exams three times before becoming China’s richest man. His e-commerce company now attracts about 100 million shoppers a day.

According to Business Insider, Ma ruled out his chances of a post-secondary education after the failed exams, and turned his attentions to finding work:

“I went for a job with the police; they said, ‘you’re no good,'” Ma said. “I even went to KFC when it came to my city. Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy [who didn’t get a job].”

He founded Alibaba but the brand did not turn a profit for the first three years. With no banks willing to work with them or process payments, Ma decided to start his own payment program called Alipay (which transfers payments of different currencies between international buyers and sellers).

“So many people I talked to at that time about Alipay, they said, ‘This is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had,'” Ma says. “I didn’t care if it was stupid, as long as people could use it.”

Today, more than 500 million people actively use Alipay.

7. Treat employees like family
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group

Employees should be your number one priority as a leader, according to Sir Richard Branson. Photo from Virgin Media.

When Sir Richard Branson is asked about what success and happiness look like as a billionaire, he speaks of the importance of family and his more than 40-year marriage. The fun-loving CEO is famously noted for saying, “Customers come second” and believes employees are to be treated with familiarity of someone you know and care about – because it’s also good for business.

This employee-centric management strategy is a key of Virgin’s success, according to Branson: happy employees equal happy customers – and an unhappy employee can ruin the brand experience for not just one, but numerous customers.

“If the person who works at your company is not appreciated, they are not going to do things with a smile,” Branson explained.

Companies risk losing customers over bad service when they don’t treat their staff like family. To this end, Branson prioritises employees first, customers second, and shareholders third.

8. Be stubborn when it comes to your vision but flexible about the details
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon

Know when to be stubborn and when to be flexible, says the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos. Photo from Twitter.

Currently the world’s richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos built one of the Internet’s first and most successful shops. Amazon was founded in 1994 as a book store; today one of its largest revenue streams is cloud computing and servers. Jeff Bezos went from selling things on the Intrenet, to selling the Internet itself.

His business mantra?

“If you’re not stubborn, you’re bound to give up on your business sooner or later. If you’re not flexible, you’ll never come up with a different solution than the one you already have. You need to be stubborn in your vision and flexible about the details. Being stubborn and flexible at the same time isn’t easy and you need to know when to be, in order to succeed.”


Ready to put practical tips to action?

CONTRACT SA’s Leadership Development courses will give you the tools you need to take your company to the next level.