Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to examine empirically the effect of cultural and social acceptance on CEO leadership. Design/methodology/approach - Several instruments were used to capture key concepts (i.e. Organisational Culture Profile, Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, Transformational Leadership Inventory, and Leader Reward and Punishment Questionnaire), which were examined using confirmatory factor analysis. Data were collected from 635 Australian CEOs. Findings - The results of hierarchical multi-regression analysis clarified the importance of self-deception and impression management as influential context factors, and how both operate at the pinnacle of organisations. The study also identifies that transformational and transactional leadership behaviours were uniquely influenced by specific cultural dimensions, and suggests that CEOs use combinations of these behaviours to respond to four cultural dimensions (i.e. emphasis on rewards, performance orientation, innovation, and stability) in order to produce competitive advantages. Research limitations/implications - The study highlights how CEOs are still vulnerable to conforming to the social norms of their organisation and also how CEOs use a repertoire of leadership behaviours, in response to the importance of different cultural dimensions. Originality/value - The paper contributes to the leadership literature by directly addressing how context impacts on CEO leadership in three specific areas: social acceptance needs, demographics and culture. Further, the study investigates CEO transformational and transactional leadership behaviours rather than global constructs, and directly addresses the common method variance issue.