tesla motors 2014
Photograph by Jerry Lampen — AFP/Getty Images

The 5 best business leaders of 2014

Dec 17, 2014

It’s that time again. Yes folks, it’s time to rank the best business leaders of 2014—and who better to ask than Sydney Finkelstein, professor of strategy and leadership at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, who spends his year watching for epic leadership fails and victories?

Finkelstein provided Fortune an exclusive look at his top five business executives of the year. How did he select his finalists? Finkelstein starts with the numbers, screening for a variety of financial metrics, including the executives' company stock price and market share. Then he looks at the way the sausage was made. How was a change communicated or a crisis averted?

The list is below. Did he get it right? Who did he miss? Let us know.

Tesla Motors Inc CEO Elon Musk unveils a new all-wheel-drive version of the Model S car in Hawthorne, California
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.Photograph by Lucy Nicholson — Reuters

Elon Musk—CEO, Tesla and CEO, SpaceX

“He keeps racking it up,” says Finkelstein, referring to Tesla’s stock price, which has increased 38% year to date after rising 344% in 2013, and SpaceX’s ability to win big government contracts after a number of successful trips to space. What’s equally amazing, he says, is that Musk is running two companies simultaneously—something that would normally court disaster. “The most impressive thing for me,” says Finkelstein, "is [that] someone who was an entrepreneur built up a company and then continues to do well.”

More: Fortune's Businessperson of the Year—The Top 50

Photo courtesy: Jin Lee — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Kevin Plank—CEO, Under Armour

Under Armour’s stock price rose 58%, after an incredible 80% gain last year. The company has now had four straight quarters of over 30% growth and 18 straight quarters of over 20% growth. “Nike,” says Finkelstein, “is on alert.” Plank, he adds, “is really an inspirational leader. He walks the talk and has a lot of authenticity.”

Tmall Reaches Total Volume Of 57.1 Billion RMB During Double Eleven
Photograph by ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Jack Ma—Executive Chairman, Alibaba

After the largest IPO in history, which raised $25 billion in September, Alibaba's stock price increased by an additional 12%. Finkelstein credits Ma with Alibaba’s 53.7% one-year revenue growth and 1000% mobile revenue growth. “Who’s done this?” Finkelstein asks, rhetorically.

Key Speakers At The Stanford Institute For Economic Policy Research Forum
John C. Martin, chairman and chief executive officer of Gilead Sciences.Photograph by Tony Avelar — Bloomberg via Getty Images

John Martin—CEO, Gilead Sciences

Martin “successfully brought Sovaldi [a Hepatitis C drug] to market and embraced a pricing strategy that delivered significant value to investors,” Finkelstein says. Yes, the drug cost $84,000 a dose, but Finkelstein makes the case that because it eradicates the disease, the cost is justifiable. “I think he has been a great CEO in an industry where there are not that many superstar companies this year,” he says.

Inside The 2014 E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo
Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Andrew Wilson—CEO, Electronic Arts

In 2012 and 2013, Electronic Arts was named the “Worst Company in America” by Consumerist. Today, its stock price is up by 96%. “He started to focus on the gamers first, with more of a free-to-play model,” Finkelstein says, something rivals had done for a long time but that EA had avoided.

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