The 3 Things Every (Great) Leader Does

The results are in. Novo Nordisk’s CEO Lars Rebien Sørensen is the world’s top-performing CEO.

According the Harvard Business Review, Lars outranked his S&P Global 1200 colleagues in both financial and non-financial performance measures. He ranked 6th in financial performance over his 15 year tenure, and 15th in HBR’s new ESG ranking which looked essentially at corporate social responsibility.

Lars is an example of enduring success, having performed well as CEO for 15 years, but he isn’t a household name. He wouldn’t win a popularity contest - like last year’s winner Jeff Bezos - but a conversation between Lars and HBRs editor in chief Adi Ignatius and senior editor Daniel McGinn, revealed why he is a great leader and deserves the accolade.

The conversation also revealed 3 key things that every great leader does.

1) Focus on what you are good at.

Novo Nordisk is sometimes criticized for being too focused. The company is skilled at preventing and treating diabetes, but outsiders say they should diversity. Lars disagrees. He’s learned how important it is to focus and he knows that the company will succeed by doing what it is good at.

What does success look like to Lars? Here’s what he tells his employees:

If we wind up curing diabetes, and it destroys a big part of our business, we can be proud, and you can get a job anywhere. We’ll have worked on the greatest social service of any pharmaceutical company, and that would be a phenomenal thing.
- Lars Rebien Sorensen | Harvard Business Review

Phenomenal indeed!

Success requires focus. You need to be all in. It isn’t useful to hedge your bets in an era of hyperspecialization.  If you try to be all things to all people you will fail. Great leaders understand that accomplishing a big goal requires a new level of focus and commitment. Without the two, leaders drive organizations into mediocrity.

2) Play the long game

Lars has been CEO for 15 years, he joined the company 33 years ago, and believes it will take 15 more years to cure diabetes. He’s a great leader because he is playing the long game.

He is committed to a higher purpose and he’s implementing what Dan Sullivan calls the 4 C’s. He is committed to a cause that is larger than life. He relies on courage to pursue that commitment. He builds capability by sticking to his commitment, and has creates confidence because of the three preceding C’s.

Great leaders know that success doesn’t happen over night. Success requires time and effort. Through deliberate practice and persistence they expand their capabilities and the capabilities of those they lead. They encourage others to play the long game and model commitment, courage, competence and confidence.

3) Embrace paradox

Lars highlighted something important in his interview with HBR. When asked about his leadership style he explained that his Scandinavian culture drives him to seek consensus. He also mentioned that spending 6 years in the United States early in his career made him more aggressive.

Seeking consensus and being aggressive are opposing forces. Very few leader would use both words to describe their leadership style. However, great leaders embrace opposites.  They know that great leadership requires paradoxical thinking and avoid a black and white perspective.

Are you comfortable with the complexity that surrounds you? Can you process the explosion of data that you encounter every day and stay focused? Do you realize that leadership is largely about choosing the better option between two rights or two wrongs?

I believe Lars does and perhaps that is really why he was just recognized by HBR as the worlds Top-Performing CEO.