I imagine that many of us, in the course of encountering the social strata at some school or other . . . the harsh realities of "in" groups and pariahs and in-between nerds . . . have made a similar discovery: that the leaders of the cliques often seem to have achieved preeminence by the sheer strength of their own belief in their own importance. Athletic ability or good looks may help in this brutal scene, but a lot of the social kings and queens lack these and are simply self-crowned. They're so sure of their superiority that others share their belief.

No doubt the same sort of ego helps take one to the top in the office world.

Nevertheless, I suspect that many chief executives are not quite as self-assured as they seem. There must be times when they say to themselves: "How can little old me be the head of Humungous Corporation? Who am I to pretend to have all the answers?"

To a great extent, a business leader must be like the parent of a young child, always maintaining that father or mother knows best.

If you're a trooper in the corporate cavalry, and Indians suddenly appear on the horizon, you don't want a captain who blanches and says: "Oh my God, what should we do?"

That kind of honesty and uncertainty won't get you promoted to lieutenant, let alone captain.

The captain of industry or cavalry or whatever needs more than ego and wisdom. He or she has to be a consummate actor -- a master of executive demeanor.

The one absolutely key ingredient of the executive front is to appear unflappable. You've got to seem to know most of the answers . . . and where to find the rest in a hurry.

There are other useful shadings to bring to this role. The appearance of fairness is one. It's to any executive's benefit to be viewed as someone who gives a reasonable hearing to others' views, and who doesn't play favorites. And it may help to be considered an appreciative and caring person.

Yet many have risen without displaying these secondary characteristics. Whereas none have succeeded by showing the warm, human qualities of indecisiveness and panic.

The Oscars (and big-buck "bennies") of the corporate world are awarded for acting all-wise . . . always.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the coolest of them all?