We’ve all heard it before…“It’s not getting to the top that’s hard, it’s staying there.”

For CEOs and the companies that they run, this is no small feat in a world of almost constant disruptions and digital transformation. While the average tenure of CEOs is five to seven years, depending on the industry and size of the company, those actually in the position know that a challenging quarter or a dramatic shift in market conditions can change everything—in the blink of an eye.

A recent MIT Sloan Management Review article looked at how the role of the CEO has evolved over the years, including how “Tech CEOs” have redefined the role and what the best of the best do to stay on top. Specifically, researchers at the publication studied a select group of highly regarded CEOs, looking for common behaviors, traits, and practices. The group included familiar names like Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs of Apple, as well as hidden heroes like Lisa Su, CEO at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and John C. Martin, CEO of Gilead Sciences.

The key takeaway? All of the above CEOs were somehow “directly involved in inventing and producing offerings.” To put it another way, they are all inventors. All creators. All driven by a passion for innovation.

The researchers went even further to say that these CEOs: “Understand their products intuitively because, to no small degree, they helped create them. They impress their customers with their technical prowess. And they inspire their staff because they work not just above but also beside them.”

But what is it that really that sets them apart?

Here’s are two areas of distinction that the MIT Sloan Management Review researchers uncovered:

  • Patents: While the sheer number of patents noted in the article says a lot about each of these CEOs—Steve Jobs had 620 and Jeff Bezos 155—what’s more telling is when they occurred. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the slew of patents obtained by each did not slow down over their careers. In fact, “All five did significantly more patenting as time went on,” according to the article. For example, Jobs only had one patent prior to his return to Apple in 1997, and in 2010 alone he obtained 87. The researchers stressed these impressive numbers as proof that these CEOs saw the increasing importance of patents, and recognized that “expertise and innovation” were key parts of the job.
  • Publications: Another commonality found across ground-breaking CEOs was their commitment to publications, including contributing to trade journals, which the researchers believe has as much impact on expertise and innovation as patents. For example, AMD CEO Su noted how her early days as an engineer helped inform her thinking as a leader and taught her the value of sharing, which led to a career-long commitment to publications, according to the article. 

If you want to read more about today’s most innovative CEOs, check out the Harvard Business Review’s recently released Annual List of the World’s Top Chief Executives.