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6 Ways to Recognize a Team Member With Leadership Potential

john c. maxwell quote about leadership potential

For a leader who develops leaders, there is something scarcer and much more important than ability. It is the ability to recognize ability. One of the primary responsibilities of any successful leader is to identify potential leaders.

So, how do you do it? How do you identify good potential leaders, people you want to develop? You need to have a picture of that person, and I want to paint that picture for you.

How to Determine Leadership Potential

Take a look at these six areas of identification to recognize a team member with leadership potential:

  1. Assessment of Needs: “What Is Needed?”

Who are you looking for? If the mission of your organization were to climb trees, which would you rather do: hire a squirrel or train a horse to do the job? That answer is obvious. What is your organization trying to do? Do you possess a clear target? Do you know what you’re going after? That will tell you what kind of leaders you need to find to improve your organization. You’ll never hit a target that you haven’t identified.

If you never defined your target, or you have not revisited it lately, I encourage you to do so now, before you start identifying potential leaders.

Answer these questions:

  • What is your vision?
  • What is your mission?
  • Who do you need on your team to accomplish your vision and mission?
  • What resources will you need to accomplish your vision and mission?

Knowing what you need and who you are looking for is essential to success. You can’t be haphazard in selecting people to develop and expect to succeed.

  1. Assets on Hand: “Who Has Leadership Potential Within the Organization?”

Where is the best place to begin looking for potential leaders to develop? In your own organization or on your team. It just makes sense for so many reasons:

They Are a Known Quantity

Unlike when you interview people from outside, you don’t have to imagine how insiders will perform. You don’t have to rely on what they say about themselves. You’re not limited to hearing the opinions of their handpicked references. You can look at their actual performance to see what they can do. You can observe their strengths. You can personally talk to everyone who works with them to find out about them.

They Already Fit the Culture

Anytime you bring in someone from outside, you have to guess whether that person will really fit your culture and be able to work well with the people in your organization. When someone has already been working in the organization for any length of time, you know if he or she fits. And that individual is already a part of the community.

They Have Already Established Influence

Good leaders, even those with little training or experience, influence other people. When you’re trying to identify potential leaders to develop, look for influence. It’s a qualification that must be present in someone you wish to develop as a leader, because leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. If people can’t influence others, they can’t lead. And if they already have some degree of influence in your organization, they already possess an asset that they will be able to use in the future to get things done. It’s like having a running head start in a race. When you give them tasks, they will be able to mobilize the people they already influence more quickly.

How do you measure their influence?

I recommend you use the 5 Levels of Leadership. Here they are in order from lowest to highest levels of influence:

  1. POSITION: People follow because of title.
  2. PERMISSION: People follow because of relationships.
  3. PRODUCTION: People follow because of results.
  4. PEOPLE DEVELOPMENT: People follow because of personal life change.
  5. PINNACLE: People follow because of respect from earned reputation.


  1. Assets Not on Hand: “Who Has Leadership Potential Outside of the Organization?”

As much as I advocate identifying leaders in your own organization, sometimes you can’t find who you’re looking for. But bringing in outsiders can create challenges because of the unknowns. I think the greatest challenge is cultural compatibility.

I read an article in Inc. magazine by David Walker, CEO and cofounder of Triplemint real estate brokerage in New York City. Walker said, “If there’s one thing that keeps every founder up at night, it’s hiring. Hiring the best talent is a massive and never-ending challenge. . . . While every company has a different culture, there are four questions that will help you identify if a candidate is a good culture fit, no matter where your company falls on the culture spectrum.”

Here are his four questions:

  1. How did the culture at your last company empower or disempower you?
  2. What were the characteristics of the best boss you’ve ever had?
  3. Describe how you handled a conflict with one of your coworkers.
  4. What kind of feedback do you expect to receive in this role and how often do you expect to receive it?

Here’s what I love about Walker’s approach. Asking the first question helps you understand the culture candidates come from. Asking the second question helps you understand their view of leadership. Asking the third question helps you understand their relational skills. And asking the fourth question helps you understand their expectations regarding feedback.

  1. Attitude of the Potential Leaders: “Are They Willing?”

Attitude is a choice, and at the heart of a good attitude is willingness— willingness to learn, to improve, to serve, to think of others, to add value, to do the right thing, and to make sacrifices for the team. Leadership skill may come from the head, but leadership attitude comes from the heart. Good leaders want more for the people they lead than they want from them. For years I’ve taught potential leaders that people do not care about how much you know until they know how much you care. That requires leaders to get to know the people they lead and have empathy for them.

When potential leaders have the right attitude, you can sense it. When their hearts are right, they have passion that spills out. They have energy. They’re positive. They’re like the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett, who loves what he does so much that he said, “I tap dance to work [every day].” Or like longtime manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers Tommy Lasorda, who won two World Series titles. One night, after a crushing loss to Houston in the 1981 playoffs, Lasorda was undaunted and enthusiastic. When asked about his upbeat attitude, he said, “The best day of my life is when I manage a winning game. The second-best day of my life is when I manage a losing game.” That’s the kind of attitude you want to see in the potential leaders you select. They believe they can succeed. They’re willing to put in the time and effort. Even in the face of defeat, they cheerfully keep working and trying to move forward.

When potential leaders have the right heart for people, choose to be positive every day, and maintain the good character to help them keep making the right choices, they possess the willingness needed to become better leaders. And they are worth choosing to develop.

  1. Ability of the Potential Leaders: “Are They Able?”

Excellence is impossible in any endeavor without talent. No highly successful organization got to where it is without talent. It isn’t possible. Finding good leaders is like finding a good high jumper. It does you no good to find seven people who can jump one foot. You need one person who can jump seven feet. Leadership is too difficult and complex to be done by a committee of average people. The more difficult the situation, the higher the leaders must be able to “jump.”

How do you know potential leaders are gifted in a particular area?

  • They will be good at it—that displays excellence.
  • They will have opportunities to use it—that creates expansion.
  • They will draw other people to them—that shows attraction.
  • They will enjoy doing it—that brings fulfillment.

Potential leaders with talent have the potential to lift the whole organization through excellence and expand the organization through opportunity.

  1. Accomplishments of the Potential Leaders: “Have They Produced Results?”

The final area you need to examine when it comes to potential leaders has to do with their accomplishments. You need to look at whether they have produced results in the past. What have they achieved? When given a task, do they complete it with excellence? Do they meet and exceed goals? Do they deliver? If they can produce results for themselves, they have the potential to help other people succeed. They can’t lead others to success if they’ve never led themselves there.

Good leaders come in all sizes, shapes, ages, and backgrounds. Their personalities are different, and they don’t all lead the same way. However, people with the most leadership potential stand out from other people who are average because they know how to win. They are able to build something of value with the help of others.

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John C. Maxwell

ohn C. Maxwell is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, coach, and speaker who has sold more than 33 million books in fifty languages. He has been identified as the #1 leader in business and the most influential leadership expert in the world.

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