Capability Insights Consulting



Recognizing Potential Leaders

Posted on July 10, 2010 at 11:12 AM

There is no one type of leader. Nor do I believe that there is a definitive list of characteristics that define a leader. That’s one of the reasons it is hard to look at your teams and find the leaders lurking within them.

But there are some tips to recognizing those in your groups that could be the next set of leaders. A wise boss of mine once said to me, “Leaders lead. They can’t help themselves.” So, what then does that look like?


Five things to look for

  1. They often speak up and ask the tough questions during meetings. Typically they ask the questions that everyone else was thinking but not asking. The politically mature ones ask the questions more effectively, meaning they don’t put you on the defensive. But do not dismiss the ones that ask bluntly. They may not have learned the political art to questioning but they have an instinct to challenge things, to not just accept authority. No good leader is born from acceptance of all that is told to them!
  2. They ask the “what about me” questions during meetings or they corner you after with those questions. They are very fast at recognizing the topic/situation may have implications to them. We often think idealistically about leaders as altruistic, selfless beings leading for the greater good. Frankly, I prefer a leader who has a strong sense of self-interest. For me, that has a ring of honesty and sustainability. And those leaders that are able to quickly recognize impacts to themselves are often the best leaders at managing change as they understand that their people will need to understand what a change means to them.
  3. They challenge the team. They do not reserve all their challenges for management. They are equally as willing to challenge their team members on ideas, approaches and directions. The more organizationally mature of them do this as part of the natural rhythm of the team. They know when and how to challenge based on the team’s dynamics. The less organizationally mature tend to throw off the rhythm of the team and you’ll see some annoyance in the other team members. But both the mature and less mature are driven by a passion to see things done right, done efficiently, to improve things: all good qualities for effective leadership.
  4. They are the informal organizers of the team. This does not mean they are the social organizers of the team, though that is sometimes also the case. They are the ones that push the team to have some structure to what they do so it can be repeated, to store team documents and artefacts in a useful way, to reorganize some aspect of the work to make it better, to present or share their work with others in the organization to help make the team and team successes more visible. This push for organization is about being an advocate and believer in what the team does and ensuring it can be easily seen and accessed by others.
  5. They ask you about the future, about the organization or about what’s next for them. Again, there is a difference in how the more vs. less organizationally mature do this. The more mature ask effectively, ask with a visible and audible sense of curiosity and make it clear they care enough about the organization and their career to ask the questions. The less organizationally mature often seem somewhat “prima donna-like”. They can appear arrogant or selfish or the questions may present as challenging you or the organization. Step back from reacting to that arrogance. Recognize that more or less mature, these people display a restlessness and curiosity that can and should be leveraged. Leaders do need to challenge, they need to be wary of the current state and they need a certain level of restlessness in order to keep pushing the organization forward.

A person may not exhibit everything on the above list. But where you see a couple of these behaviours you need to watch more closely and start discussions with the person on their desired career path.


The ones that are clearly more organizationally and politically mature are the most ready for promotions, or lateral movements or special projects that will build their skills and visibility in the organization.


Those that still have many rough edges clearly require more work on your part. They will still need projects or team initiatives to hone their skills. They may not yet be ready for broad exposure on projects that create visibility throughout the organization. They need your help understanding the negative impact they can sometimes have while trying to move the team or organization to a better place.


But please do not drill the edge out of them completely! They will need it to survive a leadership role. And since most leaders still have leaders, they need to feel that questioning and challenging upwards is still appropriate.


In my view a good leader challenges their team with more tact then their upper management. Other good leaders can and should be able to handle more direct challenges and questioning. Far too often people are inadvertently groomed to be hard managing down and soft when managing up. To me that is completely backwards and ultimately hurts the organization’s ability to progress and innovate.


So, take a look at the people in your teams and groups in a different way. Instead of always seeing the star practitioners or the best people at specific work tasks, look for the behaviours that can indicate future leaders. You may be surprised how much you see!




Categories: leadership

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