Identifying Leaders So You Can Develop Them


Recently, at a conference I was asked how I develop good leaders. “First,” I responded, “you need to know what a good leader looks like.”

As you prepare to develop leaders, which type of person do you want to be? Do you want to know what you’re looking for in potential leaders and be able to find them? Or do you want to hope somebody comes and finds you? It’s your choice.

Every person you bring onto your team will make you either better or worse. And every leader you develop will do the same. Maybe that’s why Amazon founder Jeff Bezos remarked, “I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person.”

The Six As of Identification

For a leader who develops leaders, there is something scarcer and much more important than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability. One of the primary responsibilities of any successful leader is to identify potential leaders. 

Take a look at these six areas of identification and answer each of the corresponding questions, and you’ll know what you’re looking for.

1. Assessment of Needs: What Is Needed?

Who are you looking for? What is your organization trying to do? Do you possess a clear target? Do you know what you’re going after? That will tell you what kind of leaders you need to find to improve your organization. You’ll never hit a target that you haven’t identified.

If you never defined your target, or you have not revisited it lately, I encourage you to do so now, before you start identifying potential leaders. Answer these questions:

  • What is your vision?
  • What is your mission?
  • Who do you need on your team to accomplish your vision and mission?
  • What resources will you need to accomplish your vision and mission?

Knowing what you need and who you are looking for is essential to success. You can’t be haphazard in selecting people to develop and expect to succeed.

2. Assets on Hand: Who Has Leadership Potential Within the Organization?

Where is the best place to begin looking for potential leaders to develop? In your own organization or on your team. It just makes sense for so many reasons:

  • They are a known quantity,
  • They already fit the culture,
  • They have already established influence.

Do you have a way to “farm” talent in your organization, in your department, or on your team? If not, can you start one? People need a place where they can rise up and practice leadership. And are you speaking positively into the lives of people, especially potential leaders? If not, start doing it today.

3. Assets Not on Hand: Who Has Leadership Potential Outside of the Organization?

As much as I advocate identifying leaders in your own organization, sometimes you can’t find who you’re looking for. But bringing in outsiders can create challenges because of the unknowns. I think the greatest challenge is cultural compatibility.

David Walker, CEO and cofounder of Triplemint real estate brokerage in New York City, said, “While every company has a different culture, there are four questions that will help you identify if a candidate is a good culture fit, no matter where your company falls on the culture spectrum.”

Here are his four questions:
1.    How did the culture at your last company empower or disempower you?
2.    What were the characteristics of the best boss you’ve ever had?
3.    Describe how you handled a conflict with one of your coworkers.
4.    What kind of feedback do you expect to receive in this role and how often do you expect to receive it?

Asking the first question helps you understand the culture candidates come from. Asking the second question helps you understand their view of leadership. Asking the third question helps you understand their relational skills. And asking the fourth question helps you understand their expectations regarding feedback.

When you bring an outsider into your organization, it’s important to set expectations with that new hire up front. The more we’re on the same page, the better chance we all have of success.

4. Attitude of the Potential Leaders: Are They Willing?

Recently, in a conversation about hiring with Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, he said, “At Delta, we hire for attitude but train for aptitude. Always start with attitude.” He continued, “Bring people on the team that the other members will enjoy working with.”

Attitude is a choice, and at the heart of a good attitude is willingness—willingness to learn, to improve, to serve, to think of others, to add value, to do the right thing, and to make sacrifices for the team. Leadership skill may come from the head, but leadership attitude comes from the heart.

When potential leaders have the right attitude, you can sense it. When their hearts are right, they have passion that spills out. They have energy. They’re positive. They believe they can succeed. They’re willing to put in the time and effort. Even in the face of defeat, they cheerfully keep working and trying to move forward.

When potential leaders have the right heart for people, choose to be positive every day, and maintain the good character to help them keep making the right choices, they possess the willingness needed to become better leaders. And they are worth choosing to develop.

5. Ability of the Potential Leaders: Are They Able?

I’d say leadership talent lifts organizations the most. Excellence is impossible in any endeavor without talent. No highly successful organization got to where it is without talent. It isn’t possible. Finding good leaders is like finding a good high jumper. It does you no good to find seven people who can jump one foot. You need one person who can jump seven feet. Leadership is too difficult and complex to be done by a committee of average people. The more difficult the situation, the higher the leaders must be able to “jump.”

How do you know potential leaders are gifted in a particular area?

  • They will be good at it—that displays excellence.
  • They will have opportunities to use it—that creates expansion.
  • They will draw other people to them—that shows attraction.
  • They will enjoy doing it—that brings fulfillment.

Potential leaders with talent have the potential to lift the whole organization through excellence and expand the organization through opportunity. 

6. Accomplishments of the Potential Leaders: Have They Produced Results?

The final area you need to examine when it comes to potential leaders has to do with their accomplishments. You need to look at whether they have produced results in the past. What have they achieved? When given a task, do they complete it with excellence? Do they meet and exceed goals? Do they deliver? If they can produce results for themselves, they have the potential to help other people succeed. They can’t lead others to success if they’ve never led themselves there.

Good leaders come in all sizes, shapes, ages and backgrounds. Their personalities are different, and they don’t all lead the same way. However, people with the most leadership potential stand out from other people who are average because they know how to win. They are able to build something of value with the help of others.

When I talk about builders, I mean people who share five characteristics:

  • Builders love results.
  • Builders are seldom satisfied.
  • Builders are comfortable with uncertainty.
  • Builders are impatient.
  • Builders are contagious.

The bottom line for builders is that they always build something. They don’t just talk about it. They are accomplished, and their track record is a great indicator of their future performance—and it qualifies them to try to lead others successfully.

Following the Process

In terms of leadership, people often say, “I’ll know it when I see it.” That’s not a good strategy. 

No matter what kind of team, department, or organization you lead, you can follow this same process. You need to follow this same process because everything rises and falls on leadership. If you’re not identifying the leaders of tomorrow whom you will train up, your potential and your future will always be limited.


Originally published on the HRPS blog.


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