Spotting Potential Future Leaders: 25 Key Qualities to Watch For

Spotting Potential Future Leaders - 25 Key Qualities to Watch For

As leaders, we should always be looking to develop our team and to develop other leaders throughout the organization.

Even if you are a front-line manager, you can still be developing leaders on your team.

In fact, Simon Sinek in The Infinite Game says “One of the primary jobs of any leader is to make new leaders.”

Our goal should be that when we leave our organization or team, it runs smoothly without us because of how we developed those under our influence.

Developing leaders is also important because the more you have great leaders throughout your organization, the better your organization will run. Leadership ability is vital in any managerial or leadership position within the company.

That then brings the question, what do you look for in others to see who might make a great leader?

While leadership is a skill that anyone can learn (if one wants to take the time and effort to do so), here are some qualities and traits that you can look for that show they may already be on the path toward leadership (or already have some of the qualities or behaviors that make effective leaders).

Note: They don’t have to have every single one to have potential, but there are certain ones they MUST have, which we’ll discuss at the end.

1. They are trustworthy and are people of character

Trust and integrity are foundational for effective leadership. You want people whom you can trust but also, when they are in a leadership position, whom their team can trust.

Trust affects everything.

You want someone who tells the truth, who follows through on their commitments, who is honest about their mistakes, and who is reliable and can be depended upon.

You want someone who does what is right, even when no one is looking. You want a person of integrity.

Trust is a foundation, so make sure you find people who are trustworthy. If they aren’t trustworthy now, they won’t be when they become a leader.

2. They have built influence with others

Influence is vital as a leader – you can’t be a true leader without influence.

Influence is built on trust, helping others, building relationships with people, caring about others, and other similar positive actions (read this article for more about how to build influence).

When you see people who have built relationships and trust with others and have a positive influence on them, that’s a positive step toward effective leadership.

Influence is vital as a leader – you can’t be a true leader without influence. ~ Thomas R. Harris Share on X

3. They are about serving others, not about themselves

Some people (and some leaders) are about themselves. They are about their ego and status.

You don’t want leaders like that.

Leadership is not about you, it’s about serving the mission and the team. It’s about helping your team be their best to accomplish the mission.

When you are about yourself, your focus isn’t on the right place, and your impact as a leader will be limited.

Look for individuals who are about serving others and the mission, not themselves, their ego, or their status. It’s a great sign if they help others accomplish their goals and projects.

Look for those who serve.

4. They have a growth mindset

They have a growth mindset

Great leaders have a growth mindset.

The fixed and growth mindset concept comes from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. A fixed mindset believes that you are born with whatever smarts you have, and you can’t get better. Because of that, your focus isn’t learning, it’s about status and preserving the image of the smarts you think you have.

A growth mindset believes you can always learn and grow. You embrace challenges. You don’t fear failures because that’s how you learn and grow.

You want to look for individuals who have a growth mindset. They aren’t afraid of mistakes or failures – they see them as an opportunity to learn. They embrace challenges. They aren’t about status but about learning.

5. They are good listeners

Great leaders listen well.

When looking for leaders to develop, look for people who listen. They aren’t all about their ideas or push their agendas, they listen to others and their ideas.

When someone gives them feedback, they listen to and accept it.

They don’t interrupt and jump in with what they want to say, they ask questions and draw out what others are saying.

6. They help encourage others’ ideas

When ideas are being shared, you want someone who isn’t about promoting “their” idea, you want someone who is about the best idea.

You want someone who encourages others to speak up and share. You want someone who asks questions and encourages others to speak.   

7. They help others win

This goes back to serving others. If someone is always about getting the win, then that’s not a good sign.

If they are about helping others win, reach their goals, and make accomplishments, that is something you want to see in potential leaders.

8. They care about and build others up

A major part of building influence is building relationships and caring about people. People know when you care, or don’t, and if you don’t, it will hurt your ability to lead.

If you have someone who doesn’t care about others, that’s not going to change when they become a leader. You want to find people who care about and builds others up.

9. They are respected by others

This is directly related to influence. If others don’t respect them now as a coworker, they’re not going to respect them as a leader. There’s a lack of trust or something else going on.

What amazes me in some organizations is when they are hiring someone for a leadership position, they don’t talk to the people who served beside or “under” them.

Don’t be like that. Find out how those who work with them view them (get multiple viewpoints, not just one).

10. They deal with problems directly, and they don’t talk behind people’s back

They deal with problems directly, and don’t talk behind people’s back

You want someone who is willing to go directly to someone about an issue or problem. They don’t gossip, build cliques, or talk bad about people behind people’s backs.

They also don’t share others’ secrets or personal matters. If someone shares something in confidence, they are kept in confidence. They aren’t gossiping or sharing for personal gain.  

11. They take ownership when something goes wrong

Quite a few years I was part of an interview panel, and during one interview, a few of us laughed because of how wordy and long the required question was.

Later, our supervisor chided us for laughing. Because of how uncomfortable it was, I played it off and said someone else made me laugh.

Another person spoke up, said he laughed and apologized for it.

Who was the one who showed the most leadership in that situation? It wasn’t me. I passed the blame instead of taking ownership of my actions.

You don’t want someone who does what I was doing. You want someone like the other person, who, when they make a mistake or a failure happens, they own it, take responsibility, and then work to fix it.

If they are the ones to cast blame, it won’t go well when they move up (unless they change).

12. They pass credit

Is the person about their ego and trying to take all the credit and glory for themselves? Or are they humble, about others, and pass the credit and praise to others?

You want to look for one who takes ownership when things go wrong and passes credit when things go well.

13. They admit mistakes and when they don’t know

Do they try to hide mistakes when something happens? Or are they upfront about making mistakes? Do they fear making mistakes and see them as bad, or do they see them as learning opportunities?

How do they react when others make mistakes? Their viewpoint and reaction to mistakes matter.

In the same vein, many people get caught in the trap of not saying something when they don’t know something because they fear looking stupid. They choose to be dumb instead of “looking dumb”.

Ideally, you want to find something who’s willing to speak up when they don’t know because that’s a fast way to learn.

The more they speak up, the more they will learn, and the better they will do.

Also Read: 3 Must-Do Steps To Overcome Leadership Mistakes Effectively

14. They ask for help when they need it

If someone is unwilling to ask for help, if they always hide their need and always try to do it themselves, that habit can also be harmful as a leader.

You do want someone who takes the initiative and works through problems to figure out and solve them, but if they avoid asking for help because of fear or they wait too long, that could hurt them as a leader.

15. They use critical thinking, are able to solve problems, and make effective decisions

Critical thinking is important for leadership. You need to be able to think for yourself, be able to solve problems, and use good processes to make decisions.

If someone can solve problems and use good processes for decisions now, it can help them as a leader.

16. They communicate well

They communicate really well

If they are unable to communicate in a way where others can understand what they are saying, or they just do a poor job communicating period, it’s going to hurt them as a leader.

Also Read: 11 Ways to Elevate Your Communication Skills as a Leader

17. They prioritize well

It’s important as an individual performer (a “regular” employee) to be able to prioritize well so that you can make sure you do what’s important. It’s even more important as a leader that you can prioritize well, because, not only are you prioritizing your time, you are also prioritizing others’ time as well.

Not only that, you prioritize where money and resources go with your decisions, so it’s important for leaders to know or learn how to prioritize well.

18. They are disciplined

They are focused and get their work done. They do what needs to be done, even when it’s hard.

It’s not about what’s comfortable, it’s about what’s needed. They don’t waste their day chatting or checking emails or socials, they are diligent about the work they need to do.

19. They show initiative

You want people who take initiative, who see a problem, need, or opportunity and they make the effort to work on it.

If someone always waits to be told what to do, that’s usually not a good thing on their part (and/or it shows a terrible culture at the company).

20. They are humble

Jim Collins in Good to Great said that there were two main traits of the Level 5 leaders he found, and one of those traits was humility.

They were about the mission, not themselves. They weren’t about their ego or status or looking good.

We’ve mentioned this concept in other points, but it’s worth pointing out that ego doesn’t make a great leader, humility does.

Find people who are humble.

21. They are driven

The second trait Collins mentions is what I equate to being driven. They are driven to make the mission happen.

They aren’t lazy or lackadaisical about it. They are driven in their work and what they do.

22. They work well with others

If someone has a hard time getting along with others, that issue can compound as a leader.

It will hurt their influence, and they will have a hard time getting much done.

You want someone who works well with others, who collaborates well, and who is considered a great team player.

23. They speak up, even when it’s hard

If they avoid speaking up out of fear of others’ reactions, that will hurt them as a leader.

You want someone who is willing to speak up, disagree, and say what needs to be said, even when it’s hard to do so, even when someone may react negatively.

Both Simon Sinek and Keith Ferrazzi say that not speaking up as they should is a huge mistake that leaders can make.

24. They react well to conflict

Good leaders realize that conflict in itself isn’t bad. Disagreeing about ideas is not disagreeing about people.

However, sometimes unhealthy conflict does happen. People may raise their voices and yell or call names. Great leaders react well.

They don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior. They react calmly and focus on facts. They model the behavior others should have.

If someone always reacts in anger or responds negatively to others, that’s not healthy as an individual worker or as a leader.

Also Read: Your Guide to Overcoming Fear of Organizational Conflict

25. They want to lead

This is an important one! Make sure they actually want to lead.

Leadership, if done right, is hard work. Make sure they understand what leadership entails and that they are wanting and willing to do it.

If not, it’ll only cause problems in the future.

Bringing it all together

Some of these qualities and traits are vital. Others can be learned. What matters with many of them is the willingness to grow.

What are some of the vital traits to look for? You want someone who is trustworthy and humble for sure. You also want someone who has a growth mindset, takes ownership of their mistakes, is about serving instead of being served, and cares for others and respects others.  You want someone who you can see is already building influence with others.

In all of these areas, people can grow. They don’t have to exhibit all of the other traits now. But, if they are exhibiting the traits now, it means they are on the right path.

It’s also important to note that character traits are harder to change, though not impossible, so it’s important that they exhibit the traits you want. If they haven’t been shown to be trustworthy, you want them to prove and rebuild that trust over time before trusting them in a leadership position (it also depends on how they broke that trust and their response to it). If they are egotistical, they could change, but you would want them to change and know it’s a real change before moving them up.  

Build great leaders

Once you recognize the people you want to start growing, start growing them. Train them, and don’t let the training stop.

The more great leaders you have within your organization, the better your organization will be.

It’s worth building great leaders.


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