One of the key areas that most of the organisations get very wrong is how to identify within their ranks future leaders who have the actual skills and abilities to lead well.

Anyone can be promoted to a leadership position in most of the current systems within organisations: you stay put for X number of years and slowly but surely you go up the ranks.

This, however, does not mean that each individual knows how to lead well.

To lead badly is easy but to lead well you actually need to do something that goes against individual career success: you have to be able to measure your own success through what happens to the people you lead.

Many organisations are on the look-out for leadership potential but don’t really know how to spot it especially when these individuals might not have led yet.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes in Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders,

“potential is really a bet that organisations place on an individual’s ability to display leadership talent in the future- and they cannot rely on past performance to predict this potential when individuals have not done the job yet” (p. 104).

So what can you do to try to get a somewhat accurate estimate of those individuals who might be good leaders in waiting?

In this blog, I continue unpacking  Tomas’ book and take a look how organisations can become smarter in how they can detect leadership potential more accurately.


3 key trends in spotting leadership potential

There are 3 key factors or skillsets that can be helpful indicators whether an individual would make a good leader.

These are all more aligned with people’s soft skills rather than something that can be quickly learned through a two-day leadership workshop: it is not about mechanics or some secret formula but more about awareness.

Intellectual capital. Every leader needs to have intellectual capital. This capital is comprised of domain-specific expertise, experience and good judgment. Leaders need to have expertise and experience as this helps them to solve complex problems faster.

For example, universities see better outcomes when the president has a science and research background rather than pure administration.

Leaders with high intellectual capital engage their teams better, understand subject and substance matter better, and increase innovation.

Yet, technical expertise alone is not enough: when people move from highly technical tasks (where they perform well) to suddenly managing people, the role and need of emotional intelligence increases significantly.


Social capital. This capital consists of networks and connections that a leader has and that are essential in leading: “Who you know determines not just how you lead, but also whether you lead at all” (p. 109).

Being able to influence the right people is crucial for any leader and the wider and deeper these networks are across the organisation, the better opportunities a leader has in influencing.

The question that can be asked here is about the role of this individual: “how central is this person in the organisation?”

Do other people seek him/her out, and in what circumstances? Are they emerging as a key source of knowledge and advice?

Social networks also serve an important role in terms of recommendations: competing for a job with excellent personal referrals gives an edge to the applicant given that we trust people to be able to spot leadership potential.


Psychological capital. This relates to how well people are able to lead and whether they will use their capabilities in doing so. Here again 3 key factors play an important role in how an individual is likely to lead: the bright side, the dark side and the inside.

The bright side relates to individual traits of curiosity, emotional stability and extraversion that together explain about 40% of leadership performance. These traits, combined with intelligence, show us what people are like when they are at their best.

The dark side relates to less favourable factors that include for example narcissism that keep down the leader’s performance and make them less effective in managing successful teams.

These dark traits are often grouped into distancing traits (behaviours that set the leader apart/push away from the team), seductive qualities (how the leader draws in followers), and ingratiating traits (e.g. too much attention to detail leads to micromanagement behaviours).

The inside relates to the values that the leader holds. For example, if a leader sees tradition as a core element of organisational culture, they are likely to be much less effective if thrown into an organisation that thrives on creativity and minimal boundaries.

Even though these are some of the nice pointers we can take away and consider in finding or spotting talent for leadership in our organisation, we have to understand something at a deeper level about leadership that we often get wrong.


Getting leadership development right  

We are all on the lookout for those great leaders but there are such strong underlying stereotypes of leadership that we need to really fight against if we aim to promote the best of the best.

Consider for example performance:

“A leader’s performance is the sum of actions that lead to the achievement of organizational goals, and objective measures of the leader’s performance enable an organization to determine whether its leadership selection process works. If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you cannot improve, except through sheer luck” (p. 128).

Leadership development processes are becoming increasingly important to all organisations because we want to be sure we have the right people and that those right people are being supported.

This is because “leaders affect so many people, processes, and outcomes, any improvements to leadership will spill over to the rest of the organization and the workforce” (p. 148).

(In fact, a recent McKinsey study found that we only need to target 5-15% of the pivotal influencers in an organisation to change the culture, see study here).

But a curious issue remains: most of the leadership development investments produce very little actual results and these are highly unlikely to show up as improvements in performance measures or indicators afterwards.

There are a number of reasons for why most of these investments do not produce the desired results, including that people find it hard to change, we don’t know how to accurately measure outcomes and change in behaviour, and those participating are often not the ones who would need advice on behavioural change.

Yet, strategies, like executive coaching, do work as they assist leaders to become more aware of their behaviours and ways of thinking, and enable reflection that results in changes in actions.

There is plenty of neurobiological evidence on how people can physically change their brains and become much more self-aware, have increased levels of empathy as a result of coaching and leadership development.


Evolution of leadership and why we fall for the wrong kind

Why most leaders are less effective than we would like relates to a core fault in how we view leadership: they focus on their own individual careers over the success of the group.

But the evolutionary roots of leadership are not in individual actions.

In fact, “leadership evolved as a fundamental mechanism of social coordination that promotes the survival and success of groups” (p. 169).

It is “a process through which a member of the group guides other members to valuable resources, setting common goal and direction and aligning the group’s efforts with the pursuit of that goal” (p. 169).

Yet, over time, we have grown to trust a particular stereotype of a strong leader to the extent that it is more an evolutionary belief than science-based view that most of us, even if unconsciously, hold on to.

This makes it particularly difficult for women to be selected and respected as great leaders given that their behaviour and sets of skills are often in contrast to the loud, bold, narcistic traits displayed by many male leaders.

But we do need to make choices for better and more representative leadership.

“Whether our goal is to increase the representation of women in leadership or improve the quality of our leadership, we must apply the same solutions: we need to properly understand leadership talent and learn how to measure it” (p. 172).

These are the core elements that organisations need to take seriously, and truly doing some deep thinking which investments in leadership development are really paying the dividends they are after, whether these investments are showing clearly better performance in key performance indicators, and how organisations can enable better leaders to emerge through the ranks.

By being clear what constitutes leadership standards within an organisation or institution, it will be much easier to spot the people who have the abilities to lead well.