How to Identify Potential Leaders

Updated: Aug 12, 2020

The Big Question

For year’s organizations have tried to answer these questions: What are the differences between a leader and a manager? Can managers be leaders? If so, what qualities would make them a leader? If not, why? What traits, characteristics, and behaviors make a good leader and why is it important?

Being able to identify and hire leaders can make the difference between thriving as a business, barely making a profit, or going out of business. Managers are put in place to manage a preexisting process. Managers simply manage a process and/or people to meet the status quo, industry averages, or a current target. It is their job to get tasks done. However, getting tasks done, doesn’t always equal doing the right things. Many managers can be completely disengaged from the workplace yet manage their team to a number or goal. However, they may have no drive to excel or find better ways of doing business. Finding ways to excel and improve business effectiveness are two examples of doing the right things.

Leaders work and think in ways that help prepare and position their companies for long-term growth and success. They must be innovators and forward thinkers. Many organizational HR departments have specific requirements, skill sets, and traits they look for when filling managerial positions. Unfortunately, when this takes place, the company hires people with the same personalities, the same strengths, and the same weaknesses; creating blind spots within the organization making it ripe for business tunnel vision and groupthink. Several examples of this are Levi’s who lost over $200 million in a failed launch of low-end business wear, IBM missing out on the desktop computer, and Kodak not entering the digital camera market although they were first to develop the technology. This also robs many companies ability to be agile, flexible, and limits their ability to change with the market place and economy. A ‘one style of leadership fits all’ approach chokes out creativity and innovation while breeding mediocrity. Finding a leader is far more complex than a “one style fits all” system.

What is Leadership?

First, let’s define leadership. First, a leader must have followers. The followers choose to be lead. Leadership, therefore, is a process by which an individual successfully influences a group/team to accomplish a goal or action (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy)[1]. The person doing the influencing is the leader, however, there are two other elements to consider. The ‘Leader’ must first build a team (i.e. have followers), and then influence them within a specific set of circumstances. So then, both (a) the team, and (b) the marketplace/economic circumstances, are also key factors in how successful a leader may become and the different strategies that must be used to influence their followers.

Many organizations make the mistake of thinking the leader is the most important part of the leadership equation. However, the idiosyncrasies of those being led and the circumstances, in which they are working equally determine if a leader will succeed. Considering every person and situation is different; leaders must learn to use a variety of strategies, actions, and behaviors to be successful. These are typically learned in three ways:

1) Leadership Skills/Competent Education

2) Experience on the Job

3) Knowledge of their Business and Industry

Human resources departments and hiring senior executives need to look at potential leadership candidates and evaluate their prowess in each of these three areas. An experienced sales executive who has deep knowledge of their industry, but no training or education as a leader will most likely fail. Likewise, an MBA graduate, with no experience, or industry knowledge will most likely not succeed. Leadership candidates should have a balance in all three of these areas.

What Makes a Competent Leader?

Competent leaders are transformational, they build teams, and get results and thereby have sustainable performance. Studies show that only 25% of leaders in corporate America are “Competent”. That means 75% of corporate leaders in America have limited competence (Hughes, Ginnett, Curphy), [2], and fall into one of the first three categories below.

Three Types of Limited Competency Leaders

1) Transactional – Get short-term unsustainable results, have unhappy employees, manage employees using the ancient Roman Empire style of "Carrot or the Stick"

2) Cheerleaders – Get limited results, have happy employees, unable to provide the tough guidance that brings long-term success.

3) Disengaged Managers – Get no results, hav