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5 ways to notice hidden leadership talent

4 min read


I once worked with a leader who turned around his perspective of one of his employees. This employee was skilled but was critical of the leader. When the leader had to find someone to fill in while he left the organization for several months, he saw something in this challenging individual that told him that this was the one to take care of things while he was absent.

It wasn’t just a leap of faith on the leader’s part; he saw something in this person that others may not. The employee led the organization well while the leader was gone, and he also gained newfound respect for the work the leader had to do every day.

If you are responsible for leading others, you must also ensure that you have a successor ready. In many organizations, you won’t get promoted without preparing someone to take your place. Even if developing your direct reports isn’t in your job description, it’s common sense to have someone ready to step up in your absence.

If you think that you don’t have anyone in your organization capable of filling your shoes, think again. It may be that you aren’t observing those who work for you closely enough.

Look beyond the surface: It might be that the immature employee you’ve rejected has dormant leadership capabilities. The employee who personally annoys the heck out of you yet is skilled in their job may have potential that is hidden. Look harder at those who work for you and scrutinize them beyond their weaknesses. You just might be surprised to find that those you’ve rejected have more to offer than you thought.

Still unsure that you have a potential successor in your midst? Watch for the following qualities:

Open to learning: Look for those who are open and willing to learn new skills and behaviors. They may enthusiastically volunteer for new assignments and work hard at becoming better at their current job. Perhaps they’re perpetual learners with a “can do” attitude. They may readily request to take training classes or willingly jump into new or different work than they’re used to.

Courage: The best leadership-capable employees aren’t afraid to step up to a challenge. To their credit (and sometimes your concern), they will try anything, even at great risk to their reputation. They may need to be guided to pull back sometimes, but they learn the appropriate contextual boundaries over time.

Self-disciplined: Those who have hidden leadership capabilities take decisive action and move forward. They will don’t allow criticism of their mission to keep them from doing what is right. They have some ability to control their feelings and not let what others think become a barrier. You might also notice that they have persistence outside of work to do things that others won’t do: run a marathon, learn a new language, or begin to play an instrument.

Relational: Even introverts and “individual contributors” can show a desire to seek out, create and maintain relationships. Watch for those who naturally reach out to help others with their work or who seek to collaborate on projects. Any roughness or immaturity in communication or relationships can be overcome with diligence and dedication by those who also have the traits mentioned above.

Once you’ve identified these qualities in your successor(s), you can continue to test their leadership potential by delegating some of your work to them while mentoring and guiding them to become ready to take your place. Meet with them regularly to discuss their challenges and successes. Encourage them to become stronger in the traits they’re already good at and to overcome any traits that may inhibit them. If you’ve chosen and mentored them well, you can gain satisfaction as you watch them go above and beyond what you thought they were capable of.

Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.