Here’s What Fortune’s 20 Hottest CEOs Have in Common

We’ve all been told to eat right, sleep longer, exercise more. We nod politely, and then many of us go back to our double cheeseburgers, late nights, and long stretches behind a desk. There is the wisdom of the ages, after all, and there is the reality of the day. On most days, the day wins.

That, inevitably, is how many corporate executives respond when they are reminded—as they so often are—of the advantages of “thinking long term” about their businesses: They nod politely and then go back to planning feverishly for the next quarter.

The evidence supporting the notion that future-minded companies—those that invest substantially in R&D and focus on developing and growing businesses far into the future—outperform the short-term thinkers is overwhelming, just as it is, of course, for the benefits of healthy diets and exercise. A February report from the McKinsey Global Institute lays out the business case with the kind of power data analysis you’d expect from the number crunchers there: Studying a universe of 615 large and midsize companies over the years 2001 to 2014, McKinsey researchers found that “long-term firms,” as they define them, had significantly higher revenue growth and profit than the short-termers. Their market value grew faster, and they fared better during the financial crisis too. (Feel free to nod politely.)

The problem is, studies and white papers can be easy to ignore. Much harder to ignore is someone like Jensen Huang, Fortune’s 2017 Businessperson of the Year. The 54-year-old CEO of Nvidia (NVDA), who cofounded the Silicon Valley chipmaker in 1993, has built it into a 21st-century phenom that now rivals IBM in market capitalization. As Fortune digital editor Andrew Nusca writes in our Dec.1 issue (please see his wonderfully lively profile of Huang here), Nvidia makes the “muscular mystery stuff”—the graphics processing units, or GPUs—that enable the “visual fireworks” in new video games and movies. In the past four quarters, it has racked up profits of $2.6 billion on $9 billion in sales, capping a three-year growth rate that is nothing short of astonishing.

The company’s latest chips, importantly, support the deep neural networks that are powering the modern revolution in artificial intelligence. But that didn’t happen by accident. Huang never took his aim off the future, even when the stock was floundering a decade ago. “The world didn’t quite realize what we were building,” an Nvidia exec tells Fortune. But the CEO knew his sophisticated chips were foundational. Says Huang, “I’ve been talking about the same story for 15 years. I’ve barely had to change my slides.”

You’ll see the same far-horizon gaze—and the courage to believe in it—in the other 19 CEOs who made our “Businessperson of the Year” list. You’ll see it in Bezos and Benioff and Dimon. It’s embedded in the careers of Ulta Beauty’s Mary Dillon and Progressive’s Tricia Griffith. It’s there in Frans van Houten’s ongoing transformation of the 126-year-old Royal Philips.

Perhaps most tellingly, you’ll see that same invest-in-what’s-next mindset in the Chinese government, which is helping to power the coming decades of innovation in that country—particularly in critical areas such as advanced semiconductors and robotics that are redefining industry. That’s a big reason we’re convening the 2017 Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou this month—and why hundreds of CEOs and entrepreneurs from around the world will join us.

They’ll be looking for wisdom that will help them lead their companies into the future. And you can bet they’d like that to mean the next decade or two—not the next quarter.

A version of this article appears in the Dec. 1, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “Betting Long.”

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