If you want to be a CEO, you’ll need to be able to inspire others. But some leaders excel at this part of the top job.
The most inspirational CEOs all share a common quality: resilience. Whether it’s breaking through glass ceilings or overcoming failures, these leaders don’t let obstacles get in their way.
Many of them are also eager to give back, either by contributing their time to good causes or making donations.
This year’s Fortune 500 is filled with CEOs who embody many of these qualities. Although our criteria are admittedly subjective, we’ve done our best to identify the 10 most inspirational CEOs on the list.
1. Karen Lynch
Company: CVS Health
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 4
Inspirational characteristics: When Lynch joined CVS Health last year she became one of the country’s highest-profile CEOs. In leading the fourth-largest company by revenue on the Fortune 500, and the largest health care company, Lynch is also an inspiration for women in business. Before Lynch joined CVS she led insurance giant Aetna, which CVS acquired in 2018. Lynch started her current role mid-pandemic and has focused on transforming the company’s pharmacies into all-in-one primary care clinics. In 2021, she was ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list partly because of her ambitious plans to shake up CVS’s business. Lynch led CVS to $292 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2021, an 8.7% year-over-year increase that beat analyst expectations.
2. Rosalind “Roz” Brewer
Company: Walgreens Boots Alliance
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 18
Inspirational characteristics: With just over a year at the helm, Roz Brewer has already made an impact at Walgreens Boots Alliance. The company’s profits increased 458% to $2.5 billion year over year in 2021 at the same time Walgreens became a major provider of at-home rapid COVID tests and COVID vaccines. Brewer was once a bench chemist at manufacturer Kimberly-Clark and has a deep knowledge of science. Prior to becoming Walgreens CEO, Brewer held a series of high-profile positions including chief operating officer and group president at Starbucks, and chief executive of the Walmart-owned Sam’s Club. Brewer is one of only two Black women CEOs on the Fortune 500, and she was ranked No. 6 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women List last year.
3. Thasunda Brown Duckett
Company: Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA)
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 90
Inspirational characteristics: Thasunda Brown Duckett led TIAA during a 2021 that yielded 628% more profit than the year before. She assumed the top role at the insurance and retirement savings accounts provider last May, becoming one of just two Black women CEOs to lead Fortune 500 companies. Previously, Duckett was chief executive of Chase Consumer Banking, where she oversaw 40,000 employees. Earlier in her career, she was director of emerging markets at mortgage provider Fannie Mae. Duckett is known for her efforts to include people of color in the broader financial system.
4. Robert Reffkin
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 495
Inspirational characteristics: When residential real estate brokerage Compass broke into the Fortune 500 this year, Robert Reffkin became the first Black founder to ever make the list. He started Compass in 2012 and took it public last year, nearly a decade after the company was founded. Compass is one of the youngest companies to make the list, and, at just 42 years old, Reffkin is among the youngest CEOs to lead one. Reffkin has an MBA from Columbia Business School and before he started Compass, he worked at consulting firm McKinsey, financial advisory Lazard, and as a vice president at Goldman Sachs. When Reffkin isn’t working he enjoys giving back. He ran 50 marathons in 50 states to raise $1 million for several charities, including a nonprofit he founded to help young first generation college students living below the poverty line.
5. Marvin Ellison
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 35
Inspirational characteristics: Marvin Ellison’s company, big-box home-improvement retailer Lowe’s, got a lifeline from the home-renovation boom during the pandemic. Sales rose 6.9% in 2021 to $96 billion compared to the year prior. Last year he was named Lowe’s chairman in addition to his role as CEO, which started in 2018. Before then, Ellison worked for 12 years in senior-level roles at Lowe’s competitor Home Depot. After being passed over for the CEO job there, he left to become chief executive of J.C. Penney. He’s one of only six Black executives leading Fortune 500 companies and the only Black executive to have been CEO of two Fortune 500 companies.
6. Tim Cook
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 3
Inspirational characteristics: Tim Cook has had to fill some big shoes by taking the top job at Apple in 2011. Many wondered whether he was up to the task of replacing Apple founder Steve Jobs, who died just before Cook took the reins. But since Cook’s ascension, Apple has become an even bigger tech behemoth with a $2.38 trillion market capitalization. In January 2022, Apple’s market valuation briefly topped $3 trillion, a first for any company. Despite a global chip shortage and COVID lockdowns in China, where Apple manufactures many of its products, Cook still led the company to $94 billion in profits in 2021, up 65% from the year prior. He is also the highest-profile CEO who is open about being in the LGBTQ community.
7. Brian Armstrong
Company: Coinbase Global
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 437
Inspirational characteristics: Brian Armstrong started Coinbase in 2012, and less than a decade later it’s the first crypto company to make it onto the Fortune 500. At the time of its founding, Coinbase was among the country’s first crypto startups. Later, in 2017, it would go on to become the first crypto unicorn with a $1.6 billion valuation. Armstrong took Coinbase public in April 2021 and, after its first day of trading, the company sported the seventh-highest market cap of all time among newly public U.S. companies after their first day of trading. At 39 years old, Armstrong is the second-youngest CEO on the Fortune 500.
8. Jim Farley
Company: Ford Motor
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 22
Inspirational characteristics: Jim Farley became Ford’s CEO amid the pandemic after starting with the company in 2007. And following a difficult 2020, Ford began recovering from its COVID slump in 2021. The company posted a 7.2% increase in revenue and returned 137.5% to investors for the year. In an effort to help Ford compete against other automakers, Farley has made a big bet on electric cars. The company, which earlier this year began producing its F-150 Lightning electric truck, plans to invest as much as $20 billion in electric vehicles over the next 10 years.
9. Albert Bourla
Company’s Fortune 500 rank: 43
Inspirational characteristics: Albert Bourla led Pfizer while it created its COVID-19 vaccine that has since been distributed worldwide. He ascended to the top post in 2019 after leading the company’s Innovative Health working group. Prior to that he led its vaccines, oncology, and consumer health care business unit for two years. Under Bourla’s leadership Pfizer tripled the size of its oncology business and grew the vaccine business 50%.
10. Warren E. Buffett
Company: Berkshire Hathaway
Fortune 500 rank: 7
Inspirational characteristics: “Oracle of Omaha” Warren Buffett is well known for his investing acumen, but he’s also the inspiring CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and a major philanthropist. The 91-year-old led the holding company to a 111% increase in profits in 2021 compared to 2020 and a rebound from the pandemic era slump that exceeded analyst expectations. One of the world’s wealthiest people, Buffett has pledged to give 99% of his wealth to philanthropic causes. In 2021, he said he would donate $4.1 billion of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to five charitable foundations.
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