Of all the ways to assess a stock, leadership may be the most nebulous. There are plenty of financial benchmarks by which to measure a stock's prospects, such as the P/E ratio. Yet the long-term prospects of a company are often determined most by the person sitting in the executive chair.

Great companies tend to be synonymous with their leaders or founders -- think of Apple and Steve Jobs, Tesla and Elon Musk, Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan, or Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. But it's not easy to pin down what sets extraordinary leaders apart from the rest of the pack. Here are three qualities to look for that great CEOs possess.

1. Vision
CEOs need to be able to see the future and create it at the same time. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky famously said, "Skate to where the puck is going to be; not where it is." The quote is well-worn among business leaders, and for good reason. Great leaders need to see where their business and their industry are going, craft a mission around that future, and execute on that plan. 

Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) founder and co-CEO Steve Ells has made his company into a different kind of fast-food restaurant. Ells started Chipotle with the conviction that "food served fast doesn't have to be low quality and that delicious food doesn't have to be expensive." As the company has grown, Ells' vision has evolved into the "Food With Integrity" program, making Chipotle the leader in serving sustainably raised meat and local produce. With nearly 2,000 restaurants under its umbrella and a market value of more than $20 billion, Chipotle has been an undeniable success.

Now, that successful model is serving as a template for two new restaurant chains: ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen and Pizzeria Locale. While these chains are still in their infancy, the success of Chipotle has revolutionized the restaurant industry, launching the "fast casual" subset and spawning a raft of imitations. Chipotle remains the leader, however, despite several competitive threats over the years.

2. Passion
A vision isn't much good without the passion to follow through with it. Extraordinary leaders not only have to see the future, but they need to love what they're doing and bring energy to the task at hand. That passion also infects those around them.

Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz regularly uses words like "art" and "theater" to describe Starbucks' business. For Schultz, Starbucks is about much more than selling coffee. He was inspired by a trip to Italy years ago when he saw the central role that espresso and cafes played in Italian social life and decided to bring that back to America.

Schultz has maintained his passion for the business over the years, and he regularly talks about the company's "entreprenuerial DNA." Nearly 30 years since he took over Starbucks, Schultz is still boldly pushing forward with innovations in mobile payments, upscale branding through the new Reserve roastery, and a new wine and hors d'oeuvre menu. With plans to reach $30 billion in revenue in five years, the company could become the world's biggest restaurant chain. 

3. Transparency
Great CEOs need to be skilled communicators, and they need to be trusted by employees, customers, and shareholders alike. That openness helps to build solid management teams, develop lasting relationships with customers, and bring investors running from all directions.

Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B), is respected across the business community not only for his acumen as an investor, but also for his candor and transparency as a CEO. Buffett keeps no secrets about his investing philosophy, which generally involves targeting companies that have brand power, simple business models, economic moats, and favorable share valuations.

The Oracle of Omaha is also famous for his lengthy letters to shareholders and the lengthy Q&A sessions he takes part in at Berkshire's annual shareholder meetings. As much as any CEO can be, Buffett tries to be an open book, and he's just as quick to admit mistakes as he is to boast of achievements.

The reputation Buffett has built for himself and his company has earned him a unique level of respect among investors and others in the business community, including potential acquisiton targets. It has also given him access to deals that few others could pull off, and that's one of the reasons for Berkshire's outstanding success over the years.  

Unsurprisingly, all three of these companies have been standouts in the stock market, disrupting their respective industries along the way. There are other noteworthy qualities to look for in a CEO, but a leader who has a vision for the future, the passion to make his vision reality, and the ability to communicate openly with all stakeholders will more often than not lead their company to greatness.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.