Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

12 early signs of leadership potential

Posted by A Friend on 30 March 2009

Potential Early this month, in our post about good performers failing as leaders, we alluded to a view that not all good followers, performers, and managers can become good leaders. In fact, some people – and some are very good performers – dread becoming “the boss” (see “The Boss Trap” for a good and concise case study).

Good performance in an existing role should not mean an automatic promotion into a new role, especially if the new role requires someone who does not want to become a boss to be the boss. In our experience, the selection process for leadership promotion continues to be wrongly heavily weighted against current performance.

While current performance should continue to be part of the criteria, we believe the identification of leadership attributes should have a heavier weighting. Provided below is a list of early signs of leadership potential that we believe should figure prominently in any leadership consideration.

    1. Future leaders have initiative. They are quick to identify things that need to be done, and proceed to just do these, with minimal prompting and supervision. Should they be stuck with not a lot of productive things to do, they ask for more work. They do not wait around and are not contented to just be fed work and instructions.

    2. Future leaders take ownership. They run with the tasks given to them and take responsibility for their completion. They do not go around asking how things should be done every five minutes, they just do. They are not afraid of making mistakes.

    3. Future leaders listen to others and seek advice. This should not be confused with the pest asking questions every five minutes because they are afraid of making mistakes and taking ownership, and wants to be guided every step of the way in completing their tasks. Future leaders understand that there is so much that they need to learn, and they act like sponges to new insights and ideas. Future leaders seek role models and mentors; they are thirsty and hungry for knowledge.

    4. Future leaders have an independent mind. They may not know everything and may ask around for people’s insights, but they have their own mind and draw their own conclusions. When mentoring a future leader, a good sign that you are in the right track is when you have regular “agree to disagree” sessions.

    5. Future leaders are passionate and opinionated. They have views and causes that they feel strongly about, and they do not shy away from sharing these (bonus points if these are contrary to a mentor’s); these do not even have to be work related. This shows that they are not fence sitters or brown nosers; and they are strong decision makers.

    6. Future leaders share their knowledge. They understand that the more they share, the more they get back, and the better it is for everyone. Knowledge hoarders are generally the types who are insecure of themselves or their position in organizations; they should not be leading.

    7. Future leaders recognize their limitations. They know that they cannot possibly know and do everything. They are not loath to revealing their weaknesses, and even strive to ensure that these are addressed by surrounding themselves with people who have strengths in their problem areas.

    8. Future leaders seek help. This is very closely related to the previous two items. Future leaders seek help because they lack the skills and competency, because there are others who can perform better, or because it is an opportunity to share knowledge around. Future leaders do not seek help to palm off tasks they do not want.

    9. Future leaders accept mistakes. People who take task ownership will invariably make mistakes – lots, even. Future leaders readily admit the mistakes they make, learn from these, and move on. They do not make excuses.

    10. Future leaders avoid putting blame on others. While future leaders readily admit mistakes that are theirs, they are often protective of others. What this means is while a mistake is acknowledged, finger-pointing is generally avoided. Future leaders are quick to claim the mistake as “ours” or “the team’s” rather than singling an individual out.

    11. Future leaders assume informal leadership roles. They do not need to be formally assigned a leadership role or title; they just naturally assume the role. We should stress naturally: they do not do it to score extra points or gain an advantage over their peers. They assume the role for its own sake, not because of some implied reward.

    12. Future leaders inspire performance. A future leader’s passion, drive, and commitment are contagious. They inspire others around them to perform, and they often bring out the best in everyone included in their sphere of influence.

If you are managing someone who exhibits more than half of the above traits, you have under your wing a potential leader. Nurture them, keep them, challenge them.

And if there are other potential leadership attributes you know about or look for in a candidate, please leave a comment and let us know.

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9 Responses to “12 early signs of leadership potential”

  1. wresman said

    Good article. I especially agree that good leaders will listen to ideas from others. Always good to have an open mind.

  2. Great article. I think it’s especially true that those with early leadership potential just start doing things without waiting to be given a specific role — because it’s just in their nature; it’s the way they are. When you see that, that’s promotion material.

  3. I’ve always appreciated the leaders who make a decision, own it, and accept responsibility for mistakes instead of rationalizing, justifying, shifting blame, etc. Great post!

  4. Wally Bock said

    Interesting. I don’t see the three things that I think are the best predictors of success in a leadership role. The future leader enjoys helping others succeed. The future leader will talk to others about their performance or behavior. The future leader makes decisions.

  5. A Friend said

    Thanks all for visiting, and for your input. It interests us to see some varying, but all valid, viewpoints.

    To us, the most important factor we look at is how a future leader can inspire others around them to perform. It is especially noteworthy if they do this even when they have no formal leadership or management designation.

  6. tim said

    I would add another one: A potential leader offers a compelling vision of the future.

    People tend to follow the person who paints a picture of the future that is desirable and that they can see themselves in.

    Thanks for offering these twelve characteristics. Finding potential leaders is often more artform than science. Your list has got me thinking!

  7. Anne said

    Hello. I work for a federal agency as part of a Leadership Development Program. We found your article very interesting and would like your permission to post it internally on our web page. It would only be seen by those who work here – no one from outside can access our website. Would this be alright?

  8. Grayce said

    There’s another telltale from language: Listen whether the person says “we” when referring to the group and especially a group that includes a manager. If the person says “they” a lot, their self-identification may be more of boss-manager than leader-manager.

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