Winning formula

We can learn powerful lessons from some of the most successful leaders on Earth.

What does it take to be one of the world’s most successful business leaders? The truth is that there is no such thing as a single blueprint for success – two equally successful leaders may have completely different personal qualities, professional backgrounds and skills. One might be an introvert, the other an extrovert. They may belong to different genders and have different skin colors. There may even be an age gap of four or five decades between them.

But while it’s fair to say that the world’s most successful business leaders are diverse in many respects, there are also some significant commonalities. I explored these commonalities in my book 21st Century Business Icons: The Leaders Who Are Changing our World. Here are five of the most prominent themes to emerge.

They have a compelling vision

Vision is a critical component of business success. The world’s most successful leaders are where they are today because of the vision they set out to achieve, and the action they took to achieve their vision. Jeff Bezos, founder of retail giant Amazon, had a vision of creating an online store that sold everything. Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of social media platform Facebook, wanted to make the world more open and connected. Melanie Perkins, the driving force behind Australian graphic design platform Canva, had a vision of making affordable design accessible to all.

Vision motivates leaders to keep going regardless of the obstacles they face. Another important aspect of vision is that it enables leaders to take other people with them on the journey. A great example of a vision that has excited others is mysterious coder Satoshi Nakamoto’s vision for a decentralized digital currency system that would operate without central intermediaries such as banks and governments. That vision, which he first set out in a white paper back in 2008, was the foundation and the first active crypto presale for bitcoin – the world’s first, and most successful, cryptocurrency.

Nakamoto was always aware that if his ambitious project were to succeed, he would need other people on board. He made the code to mine bitcoin available to other developers and worked with them to resolve issues as the project progressed. Surprisingly, Nakamoto ceased his own involvement with the bitcoin project in 2011, before the currency had properly taken off. He sent an email to fellow developers saying he had “moved on to other projects” – then disappeared. To this day, Nakamoto’s true identity remains unknown and many suspect that he is no longer alive. Yet it is testament to the coder’s compelling vision that the digital currency system he originally envisaged continues to thrive – despite its famous volatility.

They are extremely persistent

What do you do if you’ve trained to be a brewmaster, but can’t land a job in your chosen field because you happen to be a woman? This is the quandary that faced Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw after she had tried and failed to land a managerial role in India’s male-dominated brewing industry. Failing to secure a job was certainly a major setback for her, but in the end, she put her knowledge of enzymes to use in a different way – by founding her own biotechnology business in 1978.

Today, Biocon is one of the giants of the Indian biopharmaceutical industry and its founder became India’s first self-made female billionaire. Neither of these things would have happened had Mazumdar-Shaw not been extremely persistent. While she was growing her business, she had to overcome credibility barriers due to her gender, youth and lack of business experience. It was a battle for her to secure funding and to get biotech established as an industry in India. But she kept going, motivated by her passion to make a difference and her determination to address the huge problem of health inequity – the unjust and avoidable differences between the ability of different communities to access healthcare.

Sir James Dyson, inventor of revolutionary bagless vacuum cleaners, built and tested more than 5,000 handmade prototypes before he finally produced one that worked. Dyson’s remarkable persistence – and his willingness to accept and learn from failure – have underpinned his long career and resulted in him becoming one of Britain’s most successful businesspeople.

Dyson also shows that even highly persistent leaders know when to change tack. In 2019, he abandoned production of an electric car – despite having invested £500 million in developing it – because he had concluded it would not be profitable. While he admitted to being deeply disappointed, Dyson was also philosophical.

“Ours is a life of risk and failure,” he told The Sunday Times. “We try things and they fail.” Still, the business took away valuable knowledge from the endeavor, with many of the people who worked on the car going on to research batteries, robotics, air treatment and lighting.

Often it is persistence – and a leader’s unwavering determination to keep going, no matter the odds stacked against them – that acts as the foundation for the most successful endeavors. Canva’s Melanie Perkins has described her own determination in the face of adversity as a magical superpower, saying, “If it were easy, it probably wouldn’t be worth doing.”

They work incredibly hard

The concept of hard work is not particularly fashionable these days, since it is associated with some major mental and physical health issues, including burnout, depression and stress. Japan has even coined the term karoshi, which means ‘death by overwork’. Nevertheless, there undoubtedly remains a strong link between hard graft and outstanding business success. Elon Musk once tweeted that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”. This pronouncement may not be particularly surprising given that it comes from a renowned workaholic who happens to oversee not one, but three, major businesses – spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX, electric car maker Tesla, and social media platform Twitter. Yet Musk is not the only prominent business leader who has racked up long hours in the quest for success.

Whitney Wolfe-Herd, founder of dating app Bumble, used to check her emails every two hours through the night and get up at 4.30am to start work. (She later admitted that this behavior was unhealthy.) Roz Brewer, chief executive of retail pharmacy chain Walgreens Boots Alliance and one of a handful of black women to have led a Fortune 500 company, has admitted that earlier in her career she probably averaged between four and five hours of sleep per night.

Then there is 25-year-old YouTube sensation Jimmy Donaldson, better known by his alter ego MrBeast. A talented creator and outstanding businessman, Donaldson is challenging preconceptions that the so-called ‘Snowflake Generation’ lack the grit and resilience of their elders. Far from being an overnight success, he dedicated his teenage years to making videos and honing the creative skills that have catapulted him to global fame.

But when it comes to work ethic, it’s hard to think of a more conscientious example than scientists Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci. The pair married six years before they founded BioNTech – the German biotechnology company that developed a pioneering vaccine against the Covid-19 virus. Such is their dedication to their work that on the day they tied the knot, they returned to their laboratory after the ceremony.

They have a passion for learning

It’s common for successful leaders to have curious minds and a passion for learning. Elon Musk ploughed his way through two sets of encyclopedias as a child. Jeff Bezos is a voracious reader, with a particular love of science fiction. Brian Chesky, co-founder of home-sharing platform Airbnb, studies the lives of other leaders. During his career, he has also actively sought out support from expert mentors including Reid Hoffman, co-founder of networking site LinkedIn, and Mark Zuckerberg.

Learning and success are inextricably intertwined because a leader who is constantly learning brings an innovative approach to decision-making. Zhang Ruimin, founder of Chinese home appliances giant Haier, developed his business strategy by combining traditional Chinese culture with techniques from Western management gurus, such as Peter Drucker. Indeed, Drucker’s thinking influenced Haier’s entrepreneurial Rendanheyi model – a model where teams and individuals are empowered to create microenterprises within the context of the wider organization.

Biocon’s Mazumdar-Shaw is so committed to learning that she acts as the chief mentor for her company’s own learning institute, Biocon Academy. The academy provides advanced learning to biotechnology and engineering graduates.

They give back

The world’s most successful business leaders are also some of the world’s biggest philanthropists. The best-known example of a businessman-turned philanthropist is probably Bill Gates, co-founder of software giant Microsoft. Gates is helping to fight poverty, disease and inequity around the world through his non-profit, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Other leaders are pursuing philanthropy in different ways. Together with his wife, Priscilla Chan, Zuckerberg operates the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which wants to help build a more inclusive, just and healthy future by eradicating disease, improving education, and meeting the needs of local communities. Sara Blakely, the US entrepreneur who founded shapewear brand Spanx, has her own foundation, which supports women through entrepreneurship, education and the arts.

Even YouTuber Donaldson is already a notable philanthropist, despite his young age. In fact, many of his videos have a philanthropic angle, such as paying for people with severe cataracts to receive eye surgery so they can see again. He has founded his own charity, Beast Philanthropy, which distributes food to underserved communities, and he has promised to give away all his money before he dies.

Perhaps the ultimate example of ‘giving back’ is Yvon Chouinard, founder of US-based outdoor clothing company Patagonia. In 2022, he and his family decided to transfer ownership of Patagonia (by then valued at about $3 billion) to a trust and non-profit organization. The idea is that Patagonia will continue to act as a for-profit company, while channeling its future profits towards protecting nature, supporting the community and fighting the environmental crisis. In a statement, Patagonia said: “Earth is now our only shareholder.”

Secrets to success

Of course, there are many more attributes to a successful business leader than those outlined above. A successful leader needs to be great at attracting, motivating and retaining talented people. They need to be able to build strong teams and collaborate with others, both inside and outside their organizations. And they need to be able to connect with investors to raise the crucial funding that will enable their company to deliver its strategy.

Another important attribute is a willingness to take risks, along with a positive attitude toward failure. Successful leaders also tend to set very high standards and are driven to push the boundaries of what is possible, so they end up delivering the goods and services that transform the world.

But perhaps what unites successful business leaders more than anything else is their monumental sense of purpose. This drives them to work backbreaking hours in pursuit of their vision while tolerating extreme amounts of stress. They believe that through whatever it is they’re doing, they’re helping to make the world a better place.

Sally Percy is a business journalist and author of 21st Century Business Icons: The Leaders Who Are Changing our World (Kogan Page, 2023).