“Cheetah” CEOs Outperform “Lamb” CEOs

Topgrading research disputes what has become the mantra in leadership books and even Harvard Business Review, and that is that Emotional Intelligence (EI) is the most important competency for a leader. University of Chicago researchers studied 225 CEOs assessed with Topgrading methods and found that Cheetah CEOs (Extremely High in Driving Results but only High in Emotional Intelligence) got much better financial results than the Lamb CEOs (Extremely High in Emotional Intelligence but only High in Driving Results).

Are you surprised by this politically incorrect result? Chief Executive Magazine, in an article on the costs of mis-hired CEOs, used our Topgrading Cost of Mis-Hire Form. The article shows the staggering costs of mis-hires at the top, and the fact that 2/3 of CEOs fail to meet the objectives they were hired to achieve. Perhaps these days too many executives are hired with too much weight placed on Emotional Intelligence and not enough weight placed on getting results.

In this blog, I summarize some academic research on success of Topgraded CEOs, and you can judge whether the results are equally applicable to other upper management jobs. Having assessed well over 6,000 senior executives, including more than 600 CEOs, I happen to think what you are about to read pertains to ALL upper management jobs: EI is important for getting results but Driving Results is even more important.


University of Chicago professors (Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov, and Morten Sorenson) studied the ghSmart Inc. Topgrading assessments of 225 CEOs hired by private equity firms. ghSmart is a relative of mine – that’s my son, Geoff.

As you might expect, the private equity firms researched, including Blackstone and Bain Capital, are not shy about measuring the financial performance of CEOs they hire.

Let’s be clear in our terms.

CHEETAHS Are Extremely High in Driving Results, They:

  • Follow through on commitments
  • Hire A Players
  • Are persistent, fast, and proactive
  • Hard working
  • Set high standards
  • Hold people accountable

Lambs Are Extremely High in Emotional Intelligence. They:

  • Treat people with respect
  • Listen very well
  • Show empathy
  • Are persuasive, enthusiastic
  • Ask for criticism

Results of the University of Chicago Study: The “cheetah” CEOs met or exceeded their financial targets twice as often as the “lamb” CEOs.

It seems that soft skills are important; however, the hard skills are what differentiated CEO performance.

A Wall Street Journal article on this research stated, “The findings are sure to intensify debate about how much toughness is appropriate in a CEO.” With tough CEOs replaced by CEOs high in Emotional Intelligence, and with hundreds of studies of EI in the psychological archives – almost all seeming to sing praises for EI – the results indeed break with conventional wisdom.

Recommendation: Seek upper managers who are Extremely High in both Driving Results and EI, and for sure do not hire anyone who is deficient in either dimension, but if you have to make a choice of hiring someone who is only High in one, choose the results-oriented doer who is only High in EI.

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