Leadership optimize

10 early signs that someone will make a great leader

It's important to identify individuals who have leadership potential so that you can help them step into that role when they're ready. Here are some behaviors and qualities that may indicate you have some promising future leaders on your team.

Many performance reviews have ended with a conversation regarding advancement opportunities for employees and what they need to do to get to the next level. Most of them think that to advance, they need to become a manager. So naturally I ask them the age-old question "What's the difference between a manager and a leader?" It usually elicits an awkward pause in the conversation while they try to come up with something profound and insightful, but it ultimately ends up flat.

I tend to look forward to the rest of the conversation because I don't believe that there is only one answer to the question. Each of us has our own answer, and it's usually derived from our leadership story, which gets developed over time based on our backgrounds and experiences. Someone's vision of what makes a leader is one of the keys to how they will act and grow over the years and will usually be an influencing factor in their success. Young leaders in every organization take their cues from those around them by the actions they observe. Realizing this is important for all organizations to ensure they are identifying and providing appropriate role models.

Here are some of the behaviors and traits I have seen over time in individuals who ultimately became leaders in different organizations.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Listening and communicating effectively

Have you ever worked with a person who always says yes but never delivers what you need? Many of us have felt the frustration of that scenario, so it's exciting to work with somebody who takes the time to understand a problem while also asking the key questions to ensure that all expectations are met.

#2: Being energetic

Employees with energy tend to lift up the people around them. Leaders sometimes need to be able to boost a team when they are working on tough projects, and having this trait can make a big difference in the long run.

#3: Remaining calm under pressure

When big problems happen, teams look to their leaders for direction. When a leader isn't available, who else do they turn to for guidance and decisions? Usually it's the person who has kept his or her cool and has been trying to find a solution to the problem. Nobody wants to work with the guy who is yelling, "The sky is falling!" But they will be happy to work with somebody who can see the light at the end of the tunnel when nobody else can.

#4: Taking responsibility for their actions

We all make mistakes. Many of us know it way before our bosses find out. Leaders are always willing to admit to making a mistake when something doesn't work out as they planned. Usually, they are also trying to learn from the problem to ensure it doesn't happen again in the future.

#5: Acknowledging the contribution of others

How often do your team members celebrate each others' successes? Since the business world can be pretty competitive, it's difficult for us to see somebody else do well and not be concerned about how it affects us. Leaders learn early on that many of their achievements come on the heels of their team's successes and the contributions of each individual. Understanding this and feeling comfortable with it early in their career is a powerful trait.

#6: Being comfortable outside their area of expertise

Developers may be good at solving problems with applications and hardware, but can they effectively gather user requirements? How about dealing with end users or managing a budget? As leaders mature, they realize that they are asked to be involved with projects and teams of all shapes and sizes. The ability to feel comfortable in a situation while not being the expert gets easier when they realize that they can always fall back on their leadership skills no matter what the topic. After all, they were asked to get involved because someone thought they would add value.

#7: Being willing to take risks

Do you have someone on your team who's afraid of making a decision or taking any type of risk? Or maybe they aren't afraid to make choices, but only when they're confident that the risk factor is small. This will be a problem if they get into a leadership role. Taking calculated and educated risks are daily events in the world of management and leadership.

#8: Being able to convince others

Do you have somebody on your team whom people look up to? Or is there somebody the business likes to work with because that person makes them feel comfortable when discussing tech issues? Make sure you keep an eye out for those people. The ability to influence others and direct a project without actual authority is a great indicator that you have a solid leadership candidate on your team.

#9: Being comfortable reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses

Leaders always need to look forward and many times backward to try to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Most people like to get praise, but how do they deal with constructive criticism? Look for those who are comfortable taking time to reflect on their style and actions and how that influences those around them.

#10: Being able to adapt

Things are constantly changing in business today. Technical people who work best with a fixed roadmap will struggle in a role that has ever-changing priorities. Leaders need to the ability to adapt to their surroundings as well as to the needs of the company.

Remember that not everybody is ready (or willing) to be a leader. Plenty of techs are more than happy to stay involved in the nuts and bolts of a project or to just sit back and develop robust applications. But IT organizations need some type of leadership structure to help guide the department and to interface at different levels within the organization. While it's not common to hear about senior technical managers being good organizational leaders, it does happen. The early identification of individuals who have some of the above-mentioned attributes allows current leadership to groom those people for the future -- an important step in making a company effective and successful.

11 comments
Dogcatcher
Dogcatcher

Three qualities often exhibited by great leaders are: 1. Inconsistency. They don't care what they said or did yesterday. 2. Dishonesty. They easily lie or shade the truth to make a point or persuade. 3. Manipulativeness. They will use almost any lever to get others to do their bidding. These three are not generally considered admirable qualities, and will usually doom a manager or an unqualified person thrust into a leadership position. However, notwithstanding the negative aspects of dishonesty, inconsistency, and manipulativeness, somehow in a few people these qualities come together with a vision of what can be achieved and with exquisite judgment as to when and how to make these qualities work for them and for the organization. These leaders can be hell to work for, but we follow them because they are right more often than ordinary people who follow the rules.

radford.schantz
radford.schantz

Sorry to be a wet blanket, but the yes men and the back stabbers get the promotions.

fx
fx

So you're saying I would make a good leader then... awesome.

phillipe.nelson
phillipe.nelson

This is also what makes a great president. Vote Obama!

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

A Manager is entrusted with the well being of the organization. They are shepherds entrusted with keeping the flock fed, productive and healthy. While they take calculated risks, it is always in defense or care of the organization. A leader has no such responsibility or defined role within the organization. They operate on the fringe discovering greener pastures or falling over cliffs. By their very operational nature they may not care how many sheep fall over the precipice.

G10canderson
G10canderson

This is a great list -- thanks! The one thing I'd add to tie it all together is the ability to recognize these strengths/weaknesses within yourself and choose to apply or improve them when needed. I hire or work with many people who exhibit some of these skills but simply aren't aware of it or, perhaps worse, choose to ignore it. I tell anyone who asks that Management is a position, and Leadership is a role. You can lead without being a manager, but you can't be a manager without leading. Getting promoted to manager from an analyst position is a complete change of job description -- not a logical promotion based on tenure. Not everyone can or should change paths. Often our best leadership comes from positions less traditionally considered for the role.

pdubost
pdubost

I don't see Charisma... I know managers who have all sorts of qualities, yet without Charisma, personnality, it doesn't work right. What do you think?

metalpro2005
metalpro2005

I bet there is someone who disagrees :) (there always is)

shadowhedgehog
shadowhedgehog

First off, obama would be a bad president(i mean 'cmon his own mom abandoned him!), and two have you seen the president from the shadow the hedgehog videogame on the gamecube? HE would be a perfect president, of course I doubt there exists anyone like that in the real world.........

ron.magnuson
ron.magnuson

Of course, it depends on what you mean by charisma. I have both led and been lead by true leaders who exemplify these 10 principles but whom I would not describe as charismatic. Perhaps for a politician charisma works, but I doubt it is required to be an effective leader. The essence of leadership is the ability to inspire confidence.

mdhealy
mdhealy

Look at history -- the history of the world, the history of a country, the history of an industry, or the history of one company -- and almost always some of the worst mistakes were ENABLED by charisma. True leaders can persuade people an idea is good on the merits of the idea, but charismatic leaders can get people to follow against their better judgment.