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Identifying Emerging Leaders

What to look for when granting people positions of influence

Li #221 Identifying Emerging Leaders
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YOU DON’T “PICK” leaders. You IDENTIFY them. The big question remains: What are you looking for when you “identify” them? The high-altitude answer:

1. The ability to win followers.

2. Conformity to set criteria.

Leadership defined

Here’s my working definition: “You are a leader if you know where you are going and are able to persuade others to go along with you.” Leadership is certainly more than this, but it cannot be less. This is the irreducible definition. If you don’t know where you are going, the best you can create is a party. On the other hand, unless you can influence others to go with you, you’ll be going there alone.

This definition also counts out those who confuse a badge of authority with leadership. Metaphorically speaking, leadership is not holding an organizational gun to somebody’s head. People obeying you because they are afraid not to does not prove leadership ability.

I believe Jim Collins was right when he said (emphasis his),

“Leadership cannot be assigned or bestowed by power or structure; you are a leader if and only if people follow your leadership when they have the freedom not to.

This means an essential quality to look for in prospective leaders is whether or not they can win followers. This will be a function of their personal credibility, the confidence they earn from others around them due to their track record of character and performance. That’s why the currency of leadership is credibility.

The proof is in the performance

There are many highly intelligent and admirable people who are unable to get others to follow their lead. Sometimes it’s easily explained. They may be shooting holes in their credibility through poor behavior, or their work performance falls short in some way. Maybe they display some unattractive attitude, such as an obviously inflated ego, or a negative, critical tongue. Sometimes it’s nothing you can put your finger on. I have known some otherwise fine people with clear-cut goals who have been unable to win followers. There’s just some missing ingredient. It remains a mystery.

The bottom line, though, is clear: You don’t know whether or not someone can win followers and lead them successfully over time until you see them do it. That’s one of the most important reasons you need a process of leadership development and apply the “Agricultural” lens of waiting till the results are in (see the last issue). Performance is reality, not appearance, initial presentation, or pleasing personality. There is no single temperament type that makes a leader. The world’s greatest leaders have been introverts and extraverts, loud and forceful, and quiet and patient.

As a matter of fact, as Jim Collins points out in Good to Great, the greatest organizations are usually not led by charismatic, celebrity-type leaders (those Collins calls “Level 4” leaders). The best companies are led by “Level 5” leaders ─ characterized by a paradoxical blend of personal humility with intense professional will. These have strong egos, to be sure, but their ego strength is directed toward the success of the enterprise or team.

Once again, you only discover what a prospective leader is through performance and observation. If you try to “pick” leaders out of the masses, you will always use superficial criteria that work no better than a coin flip.

Determining criteria in advance

So besides the evident ability to win followers, what are you looking for? This requires the hard preliminary work of establishing the organization’s core values and leadership criteria. You must establish the plumb line to measure against. Here are my suggestions.

1. Indications that they understand and buy into the defined core values of the organization

Your people-development process should be laced from top to bottom with the core values and philosophies of your group. What you are looking for in prospective leaders is people who “get it”; that is, true believers who are seeking to pursue them with seriousness.

Occasionally these people are mocked by others as having “drunk the Kool-Aid,” but you can rightly ignore them. If the core values and philosophies are genuinely believed and pursued from the top, they are not superficial or trite. They are the guiding principles you want lived out all the way down the organization. Anyone who wields leadership influence must share and actively promote them.

2. Demonstration of defined leadership qualifications and competencies

Every organization will have its own specific angles on these, according to its sphere and mission. There are some generic categories you might try if you’re just getting started. I organize them as follows:

1) Vision “Ability to see the big picture, make decisions accordingly, and communicate them clearly”

2) Discipline “Focused self-control over thought, behavior, and efforts in pursuit of the vision”

3) Drive“Relentless self-motivated pursuit of continuous progress”

4) Maturity “Accurate and healthy self-awareness and self-mastery over attitude, words, and actions”

Containing these are the 3 Leadership Imperatives, which I call the “3 EFFs”:

5) EFFECT “The measure of your leadership influence”

6) EFFICIENCY “Doing things right”

7) EFFECTIVENESS “Doing the right things”

Along with these, you should add specific areas of knowledge and skills required for success in your field of endeavor.

3. Embracing the requirements of leadership

Does the person think like a leader? Leaders must have a different definition of success. As an individual performer, success is determined by how much I do. As a leader, success is determined by how much gets done because of what I do. You must make this mental shift to succeed in leadership.

The higher your area of authority and influence, the greater the weight on your shoulders. You’re responsible for more people, for weightier matters, for greater results. You are no longer a “private citizen”; you represent the entire company to others. You lose the right to say whatever happens to cross your mind, because your words “weigh” more than others’.

Before you put a mantle of leadership on someone, make sure they have understood and embraced these and other responsibilities.

4. Organizational integrity

You are looking for attitudes and behaviors appropriate for serving in a larger organization. For example, unity with other leaders and cooperation across departments and team in recognition that “we are all part of a greater whole.” Other specifics might include things like truthtelling or behavior during and following a meeting. Disagreement is fine during the meeting, but not continuing to speak against a corporate decision outside afterward.


Even though this a brief, bullet-point overview of leadership qualifications, I believe it is obvious why you need a process to identify such people. It should also be obvious that organizations who “pick” leaders by superficial criteria apart from proven leadership ability will likely end up with the wrong people in leadership.

Finally, as I have written before, administering a people-development system like this is the most reliable way to end up with genuine diversity in leadership. Intelligence, strengths, talents, and ambition are evenly distributed throughout humanity. An objective system like I have described will allow the genuine cream to rise to the top. And you can count on it. They will be gloriously diverse. Li


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