Making it work

Five ways to identify future leaders

By Gerald McGroarty, BrighterLife.ca

Comments (4)

We’re all leaders in some form. Whether by design or default, we use our influence to get others to follow us. That’s pretty well how leadership works – it’s all about influence. Using the art of influence is a skill that can take a lifetime to master.

Image of book by John C. Maxwell, The 5 Levels of Leadership

But wouldn’t it be great to be able to spot potential great leaders early on? I suggest you can. Take a moment right now to think about the five traits you admire most in great leaders. Now, if you haven’t seen great leadership in action, this exercise can be problematic. If that’s the case, simply think about what characteristics you wish a poor leader you know possessed. If you have time, write them down.

How good leaders become great

Before we get to my list, I want to share with you some insight from one of the world’s foremost experts on leadership, John C. Maxwell. In his book, The 5 Levels of Leadership, Maxwell has perfectly captured the essence of how good leaders become great ones.

His concept of the various leadership levels is brilliant in its simplicity. Think of each level as a building block to the top of the leadership pyramid, starting at Level 1 and moving on up towards Level 5. You never discard a level, you simply build on it. I highly recommend Maxwell’s book because I’m confident it will be a real eye-opener for you.

Levels of leadership pyramid, from John C. Maxwell's The 5 Levels of Leadership

For our purposes, I want to highlight Maxwell’s entry level of leadership. It’s where all leaders start and where they sometimes slip back to in their leadership journey. Level 1 is called Position. Positional leadership is based on the rights of the position or title. You’re given a leadership title such as supervisor, and then it’s game on. Simply put, people follow you because they have to. As Maxwell often says, “The position doesn’t make the leader, the leader makes the position.” But we have to start somewhere, so Level 1 it is.

Many people in Level 1 never make it to Level 2. They reached Level 1 because someone felt they had potential and gave them the opportunity. What a person does with that opportunity is the leadership journey.

So here’s today’s exercise: If you were tasked to identify potential leaders within your organization or community, leaders that you hope will reach Level 5, what traits would you look for?

I should mention that Level 5 leadership is referred to as the “Pinnacle.” People follow you for who you are and what you represent. It’s based on the respect followers have for you as a result of your mastering the previous four levels. I’m not sure how your list matches up to mine, but based on my experience, here are five key traits of great leaders:

  1. Self-awareness
    Great leaders have a strong sense of self-awareness. They know their strengths and their weaknesses and aren’t afraid to admit mistakes. They walk with humility and embrace imperfection.
  2. Emotional intelligence
    Emotional intelligence is the art of understanding and using the emotions of others to help achieve success. Great leaders use emotional cues from those they are leading to help improve a situation or assist others.
  3. Results orientation
    Great leaders get results. Not just bottom-line results but people and team results. Helping others achieve their potential is one of the hallmarks of superior leadership.
  4. Competence
    I differentiate between competence and intelligence. I know lots of people who are extremely smart but fall short of doing their jobs well, let alone leading others.
  5. Life-long learning
    I always look for people who have a thirst to learn. You rarely find Level 5 leaders who are not constantly learning about themselves and others. They might not have all the answers, but they’re not afraid to ask the questions.

There are other traits that could make my list, but these are the game-changers for me when I look for leadership talent.

I’m often amazed at how people in a position to hire or promote make their decisions. Just because you’re a great salesperson does not necessarily make you a strong choice to lead the team. Seniority should be the last consideration when deciding who should be promoted to a management or leadership position.

Whether they’re on your list or mine, certain characteristics are common to great leaders. All we have to do is look for them.

I’ll leave you with my favourite John Maxwell leadership quote: “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Play that card and watch how fast you move through the five levels of leadership.


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Michelle Smyth on

Really enjoying the book! My favorite quote so far is “leadership is taking people from whom they’re thought to be to whom they ought to be.” It reminded me that I’m very grateful to work with great leaders who believe in me.

Michael on

Good article. Very inspiring piece.

Serena on

I read & enjoyed this book. It’s interesting how much learning plays an important part in leading! Great post!

MarkF on

Great post. I’ve been fortunate to have worked for many great leaders at the Pinnacle level over the course of my career. Allows their followers to deliver outstanding results with unparalleled employee engagement.

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