Building Tomorrow's Leaders

Identifying and Developing Leaders

Organizations need leaders – and not just in top executive positions. Leaders are people who have the vision to see what needs to be done, and to motivate and energize people to perform excellently.

With strong leadership skills in place at all levels of your organization, you'll find it much easier to build a strong, respected and prosperous business.

However, spotting people with leadership potential is not always easy. To ensure your business's continuing performance, you need to identify these people and nurture their leadership potential – it's a potential that's far too valuable to waste.

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

So, how do certain people show they have what it takes to lead others?

The Right Kind of Potential

It's common to label high achievers as potential leaders. Unfortunately, it's not that simple: if people perform well, that only shows that they're well suited to their jobs.

Let's look at two examples:

  • Carla, the R&D expert, whose research led to discovering a new gene, is certainly a great scientist. Her co-workers admire the work she does, and it's very likely she'll be promoted because of her technical skills. But she doesn't share her knowledge, and she doesn't help others understand her methods.
  • Sue in marketing is a good employee whose work is above average but not necessarily extraordinary. However, what does stand out is that she has forged great relationships with people from all parts of the company. Because of this, whenever changes occur, managers count on her to see the benefits and motivate her colleagues to accept them.

Who is the real leader?

Chances are that Sue is a more promising leader than Carla. You won't know this, though, until you look deeply and observe her in action. What's clear from the start is that job performance, by itself, is not a reliable indicator.

To determine key leadership indicators it's important to recall some popular theories of leadership.

Leadership Theories

There are many theories of leadership:

  • The "great man" theory claims that leaders are born, not made.
  • By contrast, behavioral theory says that leadership skills can be learned.
  • Trait theory argues that leaders have a certain combination of natural, instinctive characteristics or traits.
  • Situational theories tell us that the different leadership styles each have appropriate uses in different situations.

At Mind Tools, we believe that leadership skills can be developed and learned, and we also believe that, in business, the right kind of leadership is most often "transformational leadership." A transformational leader is someone who can create an inspiring vision of the future, motivate people to achieve it, manage the implementation of that vision, and build a team capable of meeting the next challenge even more effectively.

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A lot of this goes on within a potential leader's mind, however, as someone seeking to nurture leaders, you can learn to recognize the traits shown by these people. By watching out for these traits, you can see that the person you're watching is thinking in the right way.

So, while almost everyone can develop leadership qualities, some may already be more advanced in their ability to do well in leadership roles. The observable behaviors listed below show this high potential. Look for these personal attributes in others, and develop them in yourself.

Leadership Qualities and Attributes

  • Leaders can see a better future – they don't accept the status quo, and they don't just settle for things the way they are. By combining their technical ability with their strong conceptual skills, they are able to generate new ideas and build an inspiring vision of how the future could be.
    • Who always thinks of new and practical ideas and suggestions?
    • Who tries to understand what drives the business? Who thinks strategically on a regular basis?
    • Who stays aware of current issues and trends, understands the impact these can have, and is quick to define opportunities and threats?
    • Who enjoys bouncing ideas around and thinking laterally?
    • Who makes changes without prior approval?
    • Who always looks for bigger assignments and for opportunities to learn new skills?
  • Leaders are passionate about leading – they have an internal drive to spearhead projects and take on the leadership role.
    • Who sees the "big picture" and plans at least the first few moves to get there?
    • Who is the first person in a group to get the action started?
    • Who can inspire the people around them?
    • Who commits to ideas and gets results?
    • Who enjoys initiating new projects?
  • Leaders know themselves – they have a high level of self-awareness. This means that they know what they're good at, they know what they're bad at, they exploit their strengths, and they manage their weaknesses (for example, by working with someone with complementary strengths).
    • Who seeks ways to increase their understanding of themselves – their skills, aptitudes, and competencies?
    • Who is open to all types of feedback?
    • Who asks for feedback and acts constructively to make improvements?
    • Who listens without trying to justify or getting defensive?
    • Who senses the impact that their behavior has on others and makes adjustments accordingly?
    • Who proactively turns mistakes into learning experiences?
    • Who encourages others to become more self-aware?
  • Leaders have high integrity – they are fair and trustworthy and expect the same from others. People trust what they say and have faith in what they do. Because of this, these leaders are respected and they treat others with respect as well.
    • Who communicates openly with everyone?
    • Who does the "right thing" despite peer pressure?
    • Who isn't afraid to be wrong or to have a different opinion?
    • Who shares mistakes and bad news openly and honestly?
    • Who takes responsibly without seeking blame?
    • Who provides valuable feedback to others?
    • Who resists making quick judgments on instinct, and prefers instead to observe what others do and the types of decisions they make?
    • Who consistently performs very well and delivers outstanding results?
  • Leaders respect other people – while leaders aren't always people-people (being extroverted or charismatic helps, but isn't essential), they are genuinely interested and concerned about others welfare, and they work hard to help people in their teams make the most of themselves.
    • Who invests in relationships with people?
    • Who sees value in others and wants everyone to be the best they can be?
    • Who is quick to ask for and give help, and models and encourages collaborative work behavior?
    • Who nurtures talent in others?
    • Whose opinion do people seek?
  • Leaders are inspirational – they have a positive and motivational energy. They bring a contagious enthusiasm to the workplace.
    • Who would you describe as fun, positive, generous, and "upbeat?"
    • Who is quick to give credit to others?
    • Who openly celebrates success?
    • Who willingly shares responsibility and sets others up for success?
    • Who is genuinely appreciative of the work others do?
    • Who focuses on the positive, and tries to make the best of a situation?
  • Leaders are special – they have a certain "je ne sais quoi" that is difficult to define and yet quite easy to recognize.
    • They make solid decisions in highly uncertain situations.
    • They are good at simplifying complex issues.
    • They are mentally tough.
    • They accept and encourage change.
    • They are proactive.
    • They are consistent.
    • They believe in themselves.
    • They are purposeful and get the job done.

So, how many of these paragons do you have in your organization? The chances are that only a few will "tick all the boxes." However, if you can recognize some of these skills, attitudes and characteristics in the people around you, you can start to work with them to develop the others. This is what leadership development is all about.


Leadership development is closely related to Succession Planning, which is about making sure that you can cope if key individuals leave your organization. Click here to read our article on this.

Key Points

Leaders are needed throughout a company, and it's wise to identify those people who show promising leadership skills.

Leaders aren't necessarily the highest performers – they may not sell the most widgets or demonstrate the greatest technical skill. High-potential leaders are often the people who want more and do more. They're the ones who embrace changes and try to help others. They make the company better in terms of performance and culture.

Proactively identify the people in your organization with the potential to be good leaders, and nurture their skills to develop candidates who can fill your company's leadership roles. This will help you ensure that you meet business needs and exceed performance standards, because true leaders will do what they can to make the organization the best it can be.