In order for any business or organization to get stronger, it needs to continuously develop leaders. The future of the business depends on its ability to either create or recruit leaders who can help it grow, adapt, and succeed. The leaders in an organization are its future. They are, or will be, tasked with creating the culture, establishing direction, and figuring out how to effectively engage employees to move in that direction. Leaders are also charged with creating the strategy for developing additional leaders so that the future of the business is secure, not just the present. Many companies have formal leader development programs, some have informal ones, and some, sadly, just hope that leader development happens on its own. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case. What most businesses have in common though, is that they need to be able to recognize early on who has the potential to lead at a higher level in the company. Otherwise they miss opportunities to help those future leaders grow, develop, and achieve their full potential in order to help the company accomplish all that it can. Everything about leadership can be taught and learned; however, it makes sense to look for people who are already headed in the right direction and show leadership qualities and traits. Here are some guidelines to help you determine who has the potential to be a great leader.
Businesses get run into the ground pretty quickly by executives who make decisions based on ego, self-interest, or the belief that their “gut” is always right. Even worse is when leaders feel like because they have been charged with leading a business that the business belongs to them and exists to fulfill their needs. Certainly, some businesses are fully owned by an individual and in those cases, there are exceptions to the rules. However, if you lead an enterprise with employees, functions, and teams there comes a point when the business exists for the customers and the employees, and the leaders have to focus on others in order to make the enterprise successful. I once heard a quote that went something like “Some leaders, when you meet them, make you feel like they are amazing. Great leaders make you feel like you are amazing.” When you find a person who is committed to and focused on helping others learn, grow, and reach their own potential, then you have found someone who can successfully lead at higher levels.
Great leaders listen well, but they also go a step beyond that and actually create the conversations they need to listen to. Some leaders rely on others to find ways to share important information or a different perspective so that they can make the best possible decisions. Great leaders, however, ask the right questions so that they don’t have to hope people share the right information with them at the right time. They don’t leave learning to chance and they don’t make decisions without considering the thoughts and opinions of others who may have a different point of view. They also know that asking questions like “do you agree?”, “are you on board with this?”, “do you have any additional thoughts?”, or “how are things going?” more often than not, yield the usual platitudes or agreement instead of a sharing an idea or decision because they are the boss. Instead, great leaders ask questions like “what’s going to be the hardest part about doing it this way?”, “what are other possibilities that we haven’t considered yet?”, “who in our business knows this area best and how do we get them involved with this discussion?”, or “if we are going to become better than we are today, what do we have to improve about our teams, culture or company?” Great leaders demand honesty, not just because they say so, but because they ask questions that draw it out. So many executives tell me that they believe their employees are very honest and candid with them. The reality is that bosses usually get the best version of the situation because they essentially control the careers, and sometimes the stress level of those around them. Complete honesty doesn’t happen in that environment very often and only when the leader causes it directly by asking great questions.
Great leaders are future thinkers, not past thinkers. They are always looking for the next improvement, the next solution, and the next level of success. It doesn’t mean that they don’t analyze the past in order to learn from it. It does, however, mean that they don’t drive while focusing on the rear view mirror. Great leaders are much more concerned about next year’s possibilities than last quarter’s results. The simple reality is that people can’t follow leaders who are focused on the past. Blame, defeat, and failure all live in the past. Potential, possibility, and opportunity are in front of us. The only reason the past is valuable is to help us chart a better course for the future. Have you ever met someone that only talks about the good old days, the hardships they’ve been through, or how things used to be? We all visit the past sometimes and that’s okay. But leaders need to devote the majority of their time, energy, and thoughts to what could be, rather than what has been. These people often have an infectious positive attitude and cause others around them to do the same because the future is filled with endless possibilities, no matter what yesterday consisted of, and people get excited about that. It’s hard to be successful without some passion and excitement on the team or in the business. Only the future can create that and as a result great leaders live there.
There are a lot of things that great leaders do and this is by no means an exhaustive list. It can, however, give you a core set of things to look for in your business as you work to understand and evaluate the potential of people to guide the business and its people to greater success and achievement. All of these things can be taught and learned. While things like charisma are harder to teach they are not, by far, the most important leadership traits. The core of leadership is much more focused on how people approach leading than about their ability to work a crowd or a meeting. Leaders who have the right foundational approach can learn to influence in ways others can’t and can develop communication skills that can help them do that. If they have chosen to define leadership based on learning from others, helping people accomplish more, and creating a better future for those around them, then they have the potential to become one of those great leaders that can completely change the game.