The Power of Cult CEOs

A new book argues that we can all learn from iconic company leaders.

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Some chief executives are so powerful that they almost overshadow the companies they lead. Steve Jobs, whose recent death led to an outpouring of emotion from fans, might be the most well-known example, but others include Blake Mycoskie of TOMS, Tony Hsieh of Zappos, and Richard Branson of Virgin. Their coolness helps make their companies cool.

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In her new book, Discover Your CEO Brand, author Suzanne Bates says we can all learn from these powerhouse leaders, and in fact, we should, because strengthening our own “CEO brands” can give our lives a boost. As Bates puts it, “We’re all CEOs of our own careers, so you want to do the same thing that top leaders at companies do.” Personal brands are important, she says, because they determine how people think of you and whether people trust you.

While the rise of social media has popularized the field of personal “branding,” Bates says it’s nothing new. She points to great business leaders of the 20th century, such as Walt Disney and Mary Kay Ash, whose powerful personal brands helped build their companies. Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, believed that women should be able to control their own economic fate, so she built a company that would enable them to do so.

Here are three of Bates’ top lessons for aspiring leaders:

1. Identify your brand. “Most of us don’t take the time or put the energy into understanding what our brands are,” says Bates. To do so, she recommends thinking back about big events in your life and career, including challenges. “What are the significant events that made you the person you are today?” she asks. Even childhood experiences play a role, she adds.

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2. Express yourself. Then, Bates suggests thinking about how you communicate your brand to the world. Do you have a LinkedIn profile or Twitter account? Do you speak up at meetings? Whatever your method of communication, she suggests thinking about exactly what message you’re sending, and whether it needs to be tweaked.

Sometimes, Bates says, even chief executives hesitate to speak up because they don’t want to be the public face or voice of the organization—they want their products to speak for themselves. But people are drawn to leadership, she says, and if you want to be known for being socially responsible, for example, then you should be out there talking about it.

3. Study the greats. In addition to the names mentioned above, Bates says Alan Mulally of Ford, Martha Stewart, and former head of Xerox Ann Mulcahy top the list of powerful CEO brands. And since successful chief executives often pen their own memoirs, it’s easy to learn directly from the masters.

Twitter: @alphaconsumer