High-performing individuals naturally stand out, but it is not always easy to pinpoint what they specifically do that others don't. This detail means that assessing leadership can sometimes become an exercise in "I know it when I see it." It's important to learn to recognize specific actions that help identify the budding leader who may not quite stand out above the rest.
Here are three actions to look for to spot leadership potential early:
1. They speak up to make a difference
It can take courage to speak up when you hold a lower-level position in an organization than those around you. People with leadership potential actively engage in conversations for the purpose of contributing vs. waiting for someone to give them permission to engage. If they have a question, they will ask it. If they have something of value to say, they will say it.
Potential leaders who are willing to speak up regardless of the disparity in level and title between them and others show they are not limited by the power structure. If they are comfortable speaking up when they are the lowest-level person in the room, you can usually count on them to be the one to speak up when it really counts.
Reliably speaking up is a sign of self-confidence, a quality essential to effective leadership. Who do you know who contributes in this way?
2. They intervene in the status quo
The status quo, i.e., the way things are and have always been done around here, is an inherent barrier to solving problems. It's an innovation crusher! Embracing the "way we've always done it" all too often gets in the way of making satisfying leaps forward vs. plodding along the path of slow, incremental change.
Someone who is willing to intervene in the status quo with a clear commitment to making a positive impact is someone to notice. These colleagues exude leadership potential. You can recognize them because they have the courage to question the way things are done and even the reasons why you do the things you do.
It's important to actively be on the lookout for these people, however, because shutting down those who challenge the status quo is an automatic reaction for most colleagues in any organizational system. It's far too easy to judge a challenger as "they just don't understand because they are new or young or inexperienced," or even "how dare they challenge me, us, it or them-who do they think they are?"
So when you see someone who challenges or pushes back or asks good questions about how things are done, it is important to support them even if it turns out they were off base. Recognizing those who have the courage to challenge the status quo early on will help you to focus on developing rather than shutting down their inherent willingness to question things.
If you want your organization to continue to be better and do better, you will need people who have the courage to challenge the status quo, and who are ultimately also willing to be challenged down the road.
3. They build trusting relationships
Think about your direct reports or colleagues from another team. Who is the most trusted among these workers? Are they trusted because of their sincerity, their reliability, their competence or all three?
Those who earn the trust of others easily show great potential as a leader. After all, the more people they are responsible for managing and leading, the harder it is to both earn trust and maintain trust. Someone who demonstrates an ability to build trusting relationships early on is building a foundation of strength for their future leadership.
These are just three of the actions you can observe in those with leadership potential. What other actions can you identify in those with leadership potential?