In the era of the ethical collapse of Enron, 3Com, Hollinger et al, the public is left wondering about the professionalism of corporate leadership in America and around the world.  Of course, most leaders of most companies are professional in their behaviour and demeanour. But what does professionalism mean?  And what does it mean to you in your practice as a CEO?  Professionalism is usually defined or understood as occurring when one displays the positive characteristics attributable to a disciplined, ethical, well-educated person.  Those characteristics and values are often defined for each discipline upon induction into the profession – such as by the Hippocratic oath for physicians or the Ritual of the Calling for Engineers.  Let’s look at professionalism from several angles and weave it towards the CEO.

The Embodiment of Professionalism

To what standard should you look to ensure your comportment is professional – that you exhibit professionalism?

The understanding of the term professionalism by most people is the embodiment of noble traits of individuals who are professionals.

Among these traits are: honesty, ethics, respect, willingness to delegate, a desire to transfer knowledge to others, a thirst for learning – from any source, striving to improve, an ability to accept the differences among people, possessing vision tempered with taking timely action as and when required, illustrating persistence and determination, not letting the team down, meeting commitments, realistically knowing and accepting yourself, being able to endure criticism, keeping personal issues in balance with professional issues, recognizing and embracing talent superior to your own among subordinates, listening without interrupting, accepting opinions of those with whom you might disagree, giving your full attention when someone addresses you, balancing seriousness with humor, being diligent with respect to your trade as well as having competence within its discipline.  Finally there is the need to accept risk as a way of professional life – balanced with fiscal and emotional responsibility.  Out of this group we can distill 11 traits of the professional CEO:

  • Honesty
  • Willingness to delegate
  • Knowledge transfer
  • Vision
  • Timeliness
  • Persistence
  • Knowing yourself
  • Job vs. life balance
  • Trust
  • Competence
  • Respect


While it may be difficult for many of us to believe in a truly honest world, most transactions, no matter how carefully written, become executed mainly by the application of honesty.  Usually, it is your family value system, learned at your parents’ knees, that determines your shade of honesty.  Closely tied to honesty are ethics of your behavior.  And both honesty and ethics are driven by ‘respect’ for other people, the last description of this paper.  People exhibiting professionalism are respectful of others and therefore honest with them – irrespective of whether they feel they ‘can get away with it’ or not.  In any event dishonest people do not usually recognize their dishonesty but feel they are ‘realistic’ or some other convenient euphemism.  So some test for honesty would appear to be needed.

We offer two thoughts:  (1) By focusing on respect, you will end up focusing on honesty. (2) ‘Honesty is the best policy’ is a truism.  Many people I have introduced to ‘honesty’ have admitted their amazement at the beneficial results.  It is a little like sharing – the benefits always come back to you in spades.  So, if not for others, at least do it for yourself. (This latter appeal for not-so-honest people to look at honesty another way stems from research related to values.  Alfie Kohn posits that children who are continually rewarded for behavior displace their ability to judge good from bad with judging ‘what gets the reward’ [reference 3]. They learn that responding to a reward is ‘right’, but have little capacity to formulate ‘right’ on their own if there is no reward associated with it.)

Willingness to Delegate

Delegating not only makes sense from the point of view of exhibiting a key professional characteristic, but it also ultimately makes your job easier.  Work passed onto others lightens your load and frees you to concentrate on other, more desirable, tasks.  The converse is a disaster:  Failure to delegate will result in your being overloaded and becoming THE bottleneck in your organization.  The ability to delegate is closely tied with trust, the risk to trust, the willingness to share information and to train. Among these, the largest impediment to delegating is the willingness to trust others with your precious responsibilities.  Here is where the real work lies.

Knowledge Transfer

A true professional will have a desire to transfer knowledge to others.  This action not only embodies ‘respect’ but it also paves the way towards ‘delegation’ which helps in the struggle with overcoming the barriers of ‘trust’ and ‘risk’.  Closely coupled to knowledge transfer is keenness to learning from any source yourself.  It allows the professional to begin to play the important role of ‘mentor’ to those below.  Also embodied in ‘knowledge transfer’ is the ‘striving to improve’ through learning and through experimentation so that you can move forward in this ever-changing world.


Possessing vision, the professional will look ahead understanding the need to balance the long term with the short term – resisting the temptation for the immediacy of the quick fix.  It means asking ‘why?’ and ‘why not?’ and seeking to make things better for tomorrow.


Taking timely action, as and when required, is incumbent upon any responsible person, i.e. anyone exercising professionalism.  Add to this definition of timeliness: personal punctuality, as well as starting and ending events on time.  It entails not only meeting commitments, but also meeting them when you said you would.


Illustrating persistence and determination, the professional keeps at the job, overcoming all obstacles while eschewing excuses.  This not letting the team down allows the professional to fulfill the aforementioned goal of meeting commitments.

Knowing Yourself

Being able and willing to realistically know and accept yourself means you have been honest with yourself which sets you up to be honest with others.  Accepting your own faults makes you accepting of others’ foibles and therefore equips you better to work with a range of different people.  It paves the way for you to be able to endure criticism, and to avoid being overly critical yourself towards others – or more specifically to be constructively critical, not personally critical.

Job vs. Life Balance

Keeping your personal issues in balance with your work-life issues demands professionalism.  You must resist the temptation to feather your own nest at the expense of other people.  It means you keep one eye on your family and friends while the other maintains a focus on your job, creating a workable balance, compromising one for the other as the situation dictates.  It is embodied in an effort to balance seriousness with humor in all situations.

Balancing job with life means that you will take care of yourself health-wise, so that you can serve yourself, your work and your family well.  It means respecting the onset of a cold and therefore taking action to destroy it [reference 2], rather than soldiering on to the detriment of home and office.


Trust is embodied in the concept of delegating above, but it also involves recognizing and embracing talent superior to your own among subordinates.  It entails not fearing the competence of juniors will overcome your own but judging that such competence will benefit you and those around you.  You must accept risk as a way of professional life – balanced with fiscal and emotional responsibility.  A professional learns to trust.


Professionalism usually is initiated by having a professional trade, which, as a start, implies the potential to have competence in a trade.  The new graduate, while still wet behind the ears, has passed the qualifying bar, exhibiting enough smarts and determination to get there.  Achieving competence within your trade means continually practicing it with diligence, ethics and professionalism (as described in this paper) and striving to learn more about it.


Respect is giving yourself to other people, allowing them to be on stage while you, as an attentive audience, listen to them, their thoughts, hurts and value those concerns as valid for that person.  It entails listening without interrupting, accepting the differences among people, and therefore, accepting opinions of those with whom you might disagree – not agreeing with them, but listening to what they have to say and validating their rights to their opinions.  Respect also involves your giving your full attention when someone addresses you.  A respectful person is neither patronizing nor condescending.  Ultimately, respectful people are honest – with themselves and with others.


Professionalism is merely a word, but one with enormous responsibility implied in it.  For the CEO, and in fact for anyone, professionalism means becoming accountable not only for yourself but also in the way you establish contact with those around you in all aspects of your personal and professional life.