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The 10 greatest CEOs of all time

One of the biggest debates in management schools and books is around the subject of leadership.Yet, despite our increasing celebrity-obsessed popular culture, business leaders seem to have a surprisingly low profile, with one or two exceptions such as Richard Branson. The recent targeting (scapegoating?) of bank leaders has also brought a few more unfamiliar names into the spotlight.

What makes a great leader? The author Jim Collins described the concept of ‘level 5 leadership’ in his book Good to Great (probably my favourite business book). This is a person who shows a high level of personal humility and quiet determination to drive their companies forward. This is in contrast to the stereotypical image of a charismatic individual who everyone imagined to be the natural leader.

I came across this list of the top 10 CEOs on Jim Collins’ website. This is from a few years ago now (2003) but I am sure the basic principles and criteria used by Collins are still valid, although I do wonder how the recent recession would influence his choice.

With a general election coming up, perhaps we can use this list to help us reflect on the leadership qualities that are really important, rather than just going along with the media bias towards the colourful and telegenic candidates. Dare I suggest that Gordon Brown may fare better using Collins’ criteria than some other candidates?

Here are Collins’ top 10:

No. 10: David Packard, Hewlett-Packard co-founder
No. 9: Katharine Graham, Washington Post Co.
No. 8: William McKnight, 3M
No. 7: David Maxwell, Fannie Mae
No. 6: James Burke, Johnson & Johnson
No. 5: Darwin Smith, Kimberly-Clark
No. 4: George Merck, Merck & Co.
No. 3: Sam Walton, Wal-Mart founder
No. 2: Bill Allen, Boeing
No. 1: Charles Coffin, General Electric’s first president

To read in full what Jim Collins has to say about this subject and why he chose those people, have a look here.

Who would your number one business leader be?

Who would your number one non-business leader be?

3 Responses to “The 10 greatest CEOs of all time”

  1. Mark Allen says:

    Whilst Jim Collins certainly wrote a msterpiece in Godd to Great I wonder about the Fannie Mae with the benfit of hindsight.
    But the leadership virtues are spot on and well done for sharing this!

  2. Andrew Gray says:

    Hi Mark. Yes it would be good to see how Jim Collins would update his list. I will seek him out on LinkedIn and ask him! Andrew

  3. Andy Hunt says:

    Oldest CEO
    Jack Weil born 1901, died 2008 was the founder and CEO of Rockmount Ranch Wear he was believed to be the oldest working CEO in the United States.

    Oldest and wealthiest CEO
    Sumner Murray Redstone born in 1923 is majority owner and Chairman of the Board of the National Amusements theater chain. In 2007 he was the oldest CEO amongst Fortune 500 companies, with an estimated worth of 9 billion.

    However best remember “you can’t take it with you”

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