Top 15 CEOs of All Time
This topic is an all-time favorite, and you will see almost everyone writing about their favorites in a different hierarchical order. Obviously, because of individual differences and halo effect, the choices and rankings differ as there is no well-defined formula for success. Even researchers that use specific metrics to assess the greatness of CEOs fail to cover it all. Our list here features 15 of the all-time favorite CEOs from 15 different industries, and if you happen to disagree or have a favorite to add to the bunch, please add your comments below.
1. Steve Jobs – Apple
Steve Jobs makes the top of our list without contradicting anyone’s views, hopefully. It is inspiring how Steve Jobs carved Apple’s future from scratch, and then 11 years later, returned to change the fate of the company from loss to profits after his initial departure at 30 years old. He brought a revolution in technology through the iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad, and animation industry through Pixar. Today, Apple Computers is the most successful company globally, with a $1.285 trillion market capitalization.
Steve Jobs has made a name for himself in technology and otherwise, showing CEO traits like:
- Inability to settle: Steve Jobs is known for wanting Apple to not just be great, but “Insanely great,” and demanded only the best of his employees and partners
- Exploring different markets: The best CEOs understand their product and company can change the world, and as the CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs contributed to bringing the personal computer to students, the public, and others, not just big businesses
- Simplification: In late 1997, Jobs returned after a brief hiatus to run Apple again, and was able to salvage his company by simplifying his manufacturing line. The best leaders know that sometimes, simplicity is the best. This was exhibited in all of Jobs’ products, especially as time went on, including the iPod, iPhone, iPad, and more.
2. Elon Musk- CEO of Tesla Motors, SpaceX, Neuralink, and The Boring Company
Industry: Neurotechnology and Infrastructure
This guy is a “Jack of all and also a master of all!” He has shown the world that honest, intelligent, hard work only brings success. We all know about his accomplishments at Tesla Motors and SpaceX, so we will cover Neuralink and the Boring Company here. But in case you want to know more, click here. At Neuralink, Musk is developing implantable brain-computer interfaces. It sounds like a sci-fi movie, and for sure it is. The Boring Company is working at enabling high-speed, long-distance travel. According to the latest reports, Elon is the wealthiest person on the planet, and his company SpaceX, which produces rockets, is valued at $46 billion.
A recognized and valued CEO, Elon Musk is known for being:
- Non-conformist: Tradition is great when you’re starting a company and want to get your roots settled. However, Elon Musk has shown that one of the best ways to get people talking is to do ditch traditions and simply be yourself!
- Constantly Innovative: Tesla is known for its constant updates, which might seem like a hassle for many. However, without constantly listening to customer input and staying innovative, who knows how further behind this giant car manufacturer would be? Elon Musk makes it a point to focus on customer input and updates for the long haul.
- Set Hard Goals: Whether it’s sending a man to mars through SpaceX or creating the first 100% auto-pilot vehicle, no goal is too lofty for Elon Musk. As a CEO, it’s important to set goals that might seem difficult to achieve but are worth the risk.
- Doing hard work: Elon is a believer in hard work and long hours. He has employed this principle for himself and others in every business venture that he’s been in. In 2022, after taking over Twitter, he told employees that they must commit to “long hours at a high intensity” or they can leave the company. While providing advice to entrepreneurs in 2010, he said: “If other people are putting in 40 hour workweeks and you’re putting in 100 hour workweeks, then even if you’re doing the same thing… you will achieve in four months what it takes them a year to achieve.
3. Jeff Bezos – Amazon
Only intelligent brains like Bezos can think of turning an online bookstore into the most successful dot-com enterprise. Under Bezos ownership, Amazon now owns Zappos, IMDb, Alexa Internet, AWS, and Audible.com. Risk is a part of the entrepreneurship journey, and Bezos is successfully undertaking it to mint profits. His risky bets, from allowing other retailers to sell via Amazon to offering free shipping at the expense of profits to increase market share, have made Amazon.com a $96 billion market cap and the most prominent online retailer globally. Through the Kindle alone, Amazon made huge profits during the great recession of 2008 and Covid-19 of 2020.
Once the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos never halters when it comes to being a leader, and his CEO traits include:
- Customer-Centric Approach: As a CEO, it’s vital to never forget that your customers are your bread and butter. When creating Amazon in 1999, Jeff Bezos made it clear to investors that his goal is to keep customers shopping, and he has never let this vision go.
- Know your market: Jeff Bezos pioneered online shopping en masse thanks to Amazon, and from very early on understand the value of market research, which every CEO should.
- Remember the long-term: Even as an entrepreneur working from his garage, Bezos understands the value of long-term strategies. As a CEO, always keep in mind that you want your business to remain successful, but also stay afloat for the long-term.
4. Warren Buffett- Berkshire Hathaway
When the Oracle of Omaha bought textile company Berkshire Hathaway, little did anyone think that it would be the biggest holding company owning more than 60 companies one day. Hathaway now owns insurer Geico, battery maker Duracell, and restaurant chain Dairy Queen. The Kraft Heinz Food Company (formed by Warren Buffet’s partnership with 3G Capital) is the third-largest in North America and fifth largest in the world with $28 billion annual revenue. He is the only person who saved Goldman Sachs from a big crisis twice and built a fortune in the process.
Today, Warren Buffett is seen as the ideal CEO, due to his traits such as:
- Humility: Even today, with his fortune, Warren Buffett still lives in the family home he purchase in Omaha and even eats a McDonald’s breakfast daily. Having humility can help you stay prepared for the worst, and give you a competitive edge as a CEO.
- Researcher: Buffett is also known for spending most of his day reading through newspapers and articles. It’s this constant research and staying up-to-date on trends that has allowed Buffett to spot major companies and investments – like Coca-Cola.
- World Impact: Buffett has pledged to give away 99% of his wealth, showing how this CEO understands that life is more than just about business. As a CEO, understanding your impact on the world can help with motivation.
5. Sam Walton – Wal-Mart
Walmart is the biggest chain of supermarkets that every American needs in their life, and the credit goes to Sam Walton. Under Sam’s guidance, Walmart embraced technology quickly and became the first major retail chain to install electronic scanners at cash registers linked to a central inventory-control computer. During 1970, the company did an IPO; sales increased from $313 million to $1.2 billion, and the number of stores increased by more than eight times. In 1991, when the country was struggling financially, Walmart was growing sales by more than 40%. In 1992, President George Bush presented Walton with the Medal of Freedom. In 1998, he was recognized as one of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century by Time magazine and CBS News.
From small-town shop owner to billionaire, some of Sam Walton’s many CEO traits that helped exalt his business included:
- Extreme Awareness: Sam Walton was known to intently observe customers at his first Walmart store in Arkansas. When he noticed customers leaving, he quickly found out it was because he didn’t have certain items in stock. He would bring those items in, and today, Walmart is known for its versatile selection.
- Curiosity: Sam Walton is described has having a hunger for knowledge. He wanted to learn how to do business, whether it was in retail or elsewhere, and did just that to make Walmart the giant it is today.
- Networking: Without suppliers and vendors, Walmart wouldn’t be half the size it is today. However, Walton spent his career networking with suppliers and vendors, recognizing their importance for Walmart and getting the best prices.
6. John D. Rockefeller – Standard Oil
John D. Rockefeller, who became the world’s first billionaire, did not leave any stone unturned to make Standard Oil the owner of 90 percent of the nation’s refineries and pipelines oil business. Rockefeller’s empire started small but soon acquired 22 petroleum firms in Cleveland. John was an outstanding business magnate who brought cheap traveling to America. His net worth peaked in 1912 to $900 million ($19 billion in today’s dollars). In the later years, Standard Oil was divided into more than 30 individual companies).
Years later, Rockefeller continues to be known for his ability to lead and his status as a tycoon. His many successful traits include:
- Work-life Balance: Rockefeller is known for his inability to give up his personal life for his business, citing the importance of having the energy to do both
- Honesty: In addition, Rockefeller prided himself on honest investments, helping him avoid costly audits and steer clear of debt
- Emotional intelligence: Rockefeller had a knack for choosing only highly qualified members to his team at the “Standard Oil Family,” which allowed him to run his business with peace of mind.
7. Frederick W. Smith – FedEx
Frederick W. Smith was the kind of CEO everyone wants to remember for his commitment to keeping the company afloat. When FedEx lost $29 million in its first 26 months, Smith brought $27,000 to the company by winning bets at the Blackjack table. He developed the first integrated air-ground shipping system, revolutionizing the shipping industry. Overnight delivery helped the company grow within 2 years, with 14 jets servicing 25 cities. Under his guidance, FedEx Corp. grew to a $75 billion global transportation, business services, technology, and logistics company serving more than 220 countries and territories.
Frederick Smith will always be hailed as one of the the best CEO’s of all time, due to his abilities to:
- Accepting Change: Fred Smith is known for anticipating the arrival of computers and created FedEx to anticipate this change.
- Master of Utilizing Resources: Utilizing both air and ground travel for his deliveries turned FedEx into the worldwide shipping magnate it is today.
- Valuing Employees: FedEx is still considered one of the best places to work, thanks to Smith’s ability to motivate employees, offer competitive benefits, and constantly remind his employees of their value to the company’s mission.
8. Indra Nooyi- PepsiCo
Industry: Beverage and Food
Nooyi, the first woman CEO of PepsiCo, showed the direction to Pepsico when she could see a giant competitor, the Coca Cola Company. She oversaw Tropicana Products’ acquisition in 1998 and a merger in 2001 with the Quaker Oats Co. In 2010, under her guidance, the company acquired the two biggest soda bottlers for $7.8 billion. Credits to her courage and farsightedness that even though Nooyi cut down spending during the great recession, she did not hold back on the restructuring and diversification costs. She made Pepsi the largest producer of food and beverages in Russia. Indra also restructured the company by bringing in KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell—into Tricon Global Restaurants (which later became Yum! Brands, Inc.). When Indra stepped down in 2018, the company had more than 260,000 employees and $64.7 billion in revenues.
As one of the most powerful female CEO’s in the world, Indra Nooyi has traits that make this possible including:
- Courageous: Pepsi is far from the healthiest thing to eat, but Nooyi still decided to launch a line of healthy snack and sugar-free beverages. Despite criticism, this change reflected well for Pepsi.
- People-Centered: Nooyi helped make Pepsi into the socially responsible company it is today, and her upbringing in India helped influence this decision in taking a people-centered approach.
- Inclusive: As a CEO, it’s vital to listen to your employees, and Nooyi is known for her encouragement of inclusivity and even changed in policy to the workplace.
9. Oprah Winfrey- Harpo Productions and Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
Industry: Multimedia Production
When most people struggle to manage one company, Oprah has been successfully managing two. She is the first African-American billionaire and the third woman in the American entertainment industry to own her studio with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion. Harpo Studios publishes books and produces television shows, movies, and radio programs. In 2018, she bagged a multi-year content partnership with Apple’ for its TV service for her company and has exclusive deals with HBO to her credit. In 2006, in an interview, Winfrey declared her intentions of never going public and has been true to her word till today.
Oprah is much more than a big name in Hollywood, and has shown her outstanding dedication to her company by utilizing traits such as:
- Inspiring: Harnessing the power of inspiration for others
- Compassionate: Showing compassion to employees, guests of her show, and her audience
- Exploration: Constantly finding new avenues for shows, networks, books, and more
10. Katharine Graham – Washington Post
Katharine Graham’s leadership saw the company grow to become one of the nation’s major diversified media corporations with newspaper, magazine, television, cable, and education. Her career’s defining moments were publishing the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal, making the newspaper the most influential and powerful newspaper in the nation. Graham, the pioneer for women in business, became the first woman to head a Fortune 500 company, whose tenure rose the company’s stock by 30 times.
While she might have been famously personified by Meryl Streep, Katharine Graham is also known in the world of news and journalism for her ability to perform well as CEO. Some of her traits include:
- Questioning: Questioning the status quo to help spur news and inform the public
- Inner-Strength: Finding her voice and not being afraid to let her colleagues know she’s in charge
- Commitment to Value: Having courage to pursue high-quality news and the truth in journalism
11. Bill Allen – Boeing
Bill, who started as a lawyer, came up with the idea of diversifying Boeing from a bomber specialist to a world-class airplane maker. He guided the production of Boeing 707, 727, 737, and 747. Boeing developed the first stage booster to the Apollo-Saturn V rocket and the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft under his leadership. To add to it, he also introduced the B-47, B-52, and KC-135 and was awarded the Collier Trophy for the B52. He was the longest-serving President with a tenure of more than 2 decades, earning the Tony Jannus Award for his commercial aviation contributions. Today Boeing is stamped as the world’s largest builder of commercial aircraft.
Today, Boeing is a major innovator in the world of Aerospace, thanks to the help of Bill Allen. Some of his most notable CEO traits include:
- Doubt: Bill Allen was originally a lawyer who rejected the CEO role, but went on to serve as Boeing’s longest serving President. However, with a little bit of healthy doubt, Allen was cautious and approached his role ahead of him with caution and optimism.
- Networking: Known for being friends with Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allen is known for networking and making friends in high places in an effort to expand Boeing.
- Spearheading: Allen continued to urge his engineers to create more advanced planes, launching the renewed 747 in his time as CEO.
12. Mary Barra – General Motors
Mary Barra is the first female CEO and the third-largest individual shareholder of General Motors. Barra led the company through the 2014 ignition switch defect crisis and purchased the $1 billion Cruise Automation in 2016 as a part of the company’s autonomous vehicle strategy. She courageously did a massive restructuring by closing five factories, dropping six car models, and shedding 15,000 jobs to increase profitability. Barra remains committed to the company’s plan to invest $20 billion in all-electric and autonomous vehicles through 2025.
Marry Barra is known as the first woman to act as CEO of the “Detroit Three” auto manufacturers, and her many successful traits include:
- Accountability: Barra wasn’t afraid to testify in front of congress when recalls shrouded GM in negative light. She took accountability and encouraged workers to report future issues.
- Embracing Change: Barra has promised to accelerate electric vehicles and focusing production on solely EV by 2035, embracing change every step of the way.
- Perseverance: Barra began her career at 18 years old when she was just a student, showing how perseverance pays off.
13. Gail Boudreaux – Anthem
Industry: Health Insurance
It seems like Boudreaux has been a CEO all her life, starting from GKB Global Health, LLC to United HealthCare and now Anthem. But this isn’t true as she has worked her way to the top. She is leading Anthem Inc, a Fortune 50 company, providing health insurance to approximately 78-million-members across 27 states. Boudreaux has been a leader within the healthcare industry for more than three decades, because of which the company’s stock plummeted by 20% within 2 years of her tenure. She led the acquisitions of America’s 1st Choice, HealthSun, and Aspire Health. Gail has been named one of Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business and was awarded the 2018 Billie Jean King Leadership Award.
Once a decorated female athelete and one of the most powerful women in the world, Gail Boudreaux shows CEO traits such as:
- Purpose: Gail is known for stating her company, Anthem, leads with a purpose, knowing this is vital for long-term success.
- Finding new opportunities: While she resigned in 2014 as CEO of United Healthcare, she then went on to found KGB Global Health and later Anthem in 2017, showing her ability to find new opportunities everywhere.
- Constantly Learning: Boudreaux is known for constantly learning new ways to bring healthcare to the underserved, and creating solutions in the world of healthcare.
14. Mark Parker – Nike
Parker has taken the company’s products a notch up by embracing innovation and prioritizing design. Parker has successfully appealed to the street style generation with his bestsellers, including but not limited to Free Runs, Air Max, and Fly Knit product lines. In 2009, Nike absorbed the soccer company Umbro and, in 2012, expanded its Portland-area campus by more than 500,000 square feet. In 2014, the company made a significant commitment to sustainability, including green manufacturing. It had 500 patents in 2015 alone, and all of this happened under Parker’s leadership. It’s said that the company grew 3 times after Parker became CEO, with annual sales of $39.1 billion and 76,700 employees. In 2015, he was named Fortune’s Business Person of the Year.
Nike is much more than a running shoe. Under Mark Parker, it has become a cultural icon, and he has helped it through his CEO traits like:
- Collaboration: A lover of art, Parker is constantly collaborating with artist like Futura 2000, Stash, Mr Cartoon, and more to make his shoe collections valuable.
- Openness: Parker is known for his openness to creativity, viewing his role as CEO as more of an editor role than a ruler.
- Focus on Brand: Parker is known to call Nike a “Sports company, not a sportswear company.” His commitment to branding has helped Nike become a household name in the world of athletics.
15. Bob Iger – Disney
Bob Iger joined Disney as CEO in 2005 and has been a peace-maker throughout his tenure that grew the company’s profit revenue 335%, to $260 billion. Under his leadership, Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion, Marvel for $4 billion, Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, and 21st Century Fox for $71.3 billion. Disney is now the second-largest media company in the world. Iger also created more than 70,000 new jobs at Disney. He has also set the stage for the launch of Disney+, a seed that will harvest the best fruits in the coming years.
Bob Igler loved his time at Disney, even extending his retirement to stay longer at the company. Some of the many successful traits he learned while being a CEO include:
- Focus on Value: Iger knew that the only way a business would be successful would be for it to focus on a valuable product, not “trombone oil” as he put it. Focusing on bigger projects allowed Disney to expand.
- Imagination: Iger valued imagination and new it could make a big difference in helping Disney grow, thus always valued it as a CEO.
- Smart decision making: Iger is also known for taking his time to make decisions for new projects, yet continued to be decisive making the best decisions for Disney’s continued growth.