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Indicators of Leadership Potential

Updated on October 10, 2012

Leadership experts like John Maxwell or James Kouzes and Barry Posner often like to say that everything in an organization rises or falls on leadership. If so, what are some key indicators of leadership potential?

Leadership can be described as the capacity to influence one or more others to the extent that those others are motivated to assist in the accomplishment of a common end goal. As Kouzes and Posner expressed in their book The Leadership Challenge (2012) "Leaders get people moving" (p. 1). Moreover, Kouzes and Posner confirmed through 25 years of organizational leadership research that competent leadership by an individual or leadership team is essential to any successful enterprise or organization.

If this is the case, competent leaders need to be identified and recruited to take up the mantel to take the organization forward in a positive direction. So whether an organization is recruiting to (a) get a new startup off the ground, (b) sustain the momentum of a successful organization, or (c) rejuvenate a failing business venture, these experts make it clear that competent leadership is a key component. If this is so, then what characteristics could be identified as key indicators of leadership potential?

One Size Leadership May Not Fit All

Research seems to show that indicators of leadership potential may not be the same for every organizational situation. This could be even more so the case depending on the cultural environment in which the organization operates. For instance, some cultures will honor leadership characterized by integrity, transparency, and a sense of ethics while others may honor leaders who demonstrate cleverness or to the ability to outwit the competition even if by unethical means. In this regard, it is important to note that indicators of leadership ability may not be narrowed to a one size fits all technique or set of characteristics.

13 Indicators of Leadership Potential

Over the years I have had the unique privilege to be involved with over 40 different organizations either as a formal employee or volunteer member. From 2000 to 2006, I worked and taught leadership in a cross-cultural organization in an Asian host culture. For 2006 to 2012, I studied and gained degrees in management and organizational leadership. Through those experiences and research volumes like The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner and Good to Great by Jim Collins, I have observed and studied many styles and characteristics of leadership and those who seemed to demonstrate leadership potential. Accordingly, I propose at least the following 13 key indicators of leadership potential.

  • Gives his or her best effort no matter the position or assigned task with a sense of humility and no sense of haughtiness
  • Highly regarded by others from all strata of the organization to the point that those others will actively support and make positive recommendations of his abilities
  • Recognizes the value of all members of the team and or organization and freely acknowledges their contributions
  • Demonstrates a capacity to make those around him better; others brighten up when he or she walks into the room
  • Cares more about the company name than his own name and shows minimal need for personal accolades
  • Able to handle tough, crises situations with a relative calm without disregarding the urgency of the issue
  • Demostrate a capacity to make decisions that are relevant to a project or objective
  • Consistently hits targets in a timely manner and follows projects through to their fruition
  • Owns up to shortcomings or mistakes to the point that he or she puts forth genuine effort to rectified them
  • Continuously updates his knowledge and skill sets in order to be up to date in his respective industry or profession
  • Actively scans the environments to enhance awareness of what is going on inside and outside the company
  • Courageous follower who is not afraid to object to activity unbecoming of the organization and make pertinent suggestions to make the organization better
  • Communicates well in that he or she shows the capacity to articulate thoughts and opinions in a manner that others actively sit up and take notice and listens intently when others share their thoughts and ideas

Kouzes and Posner's Five Characteristics of Effective Leaders

Through 25 years of research and nearly 750,000 collected survey responses, Kouzes and Posner (2012) boiled down effective leadership to five key characteristics. Those characteristics include:

  • Model the Way
  • Inspire a shared vision
  • Challenge the process
  • Enable others to act
  • Encourage the heart (i.e., leaders encourage others by showing they care through such acts as recognizing the accomplishments of follower-subordinates)

These five characteristics sum up the 13 indicators delineated above. Although these five are indicators of effective leadership, it seems reasonable that tendencies of these characteristics could be observed in potential candidates for leader positions before they are handed the reigns of any given organization.

Jim Collins' Level 5 Leader

In his business best-seller Good to Great, Jim Collins shares the results of his research of top performing publicly trade companies. His research revealed what his team coined as Level 5 Leadership. In his description of the Level 5 Leader, Collins showed that the CEOs of 11 highlighted companies moved their organizations from mediocre to top Wall Street performers through a paradoxical tension between humility and unfettered tenacity. In most of the 11 cases, those corporate heads flew under the radar before they were chosen to take the reigns and were thought to be unqualified and uninspiring choices by members of their respective board of directors. Yet, Collins found that these unimpressive subordinates proved to be:

  • loyal to the brand i.e. they cared more about the reputation of the company than their own name,
  • willing to hire and work closely with those who were more talented and knowledgeable than themselves,
  • able to make tough decisions that flew in the face of tradition or conventional wisdom; and
  • unwilling to accept any recognition for the success or turn around in performance.


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