How Do You Recognize A Leader?

I’ve written and talked in the past about the lack of Succession Planning in most organizations. I use the term most very literally. For Profit, Nonprofit, Academia, Faith-Based; the sector matters not. The data supports this perspective and has for some time, reflecting significant gaps even beyond the leadership levels of an organization.

For example, even at top-performing companies in the For-Profit sector, the percentage of employees with succession plans in place drops from 94% for management and executives to 75% for middle management, and then a precipitous drop to only 8% for operational and office staff. In the Nonprofit sector, 70% of those organizations have no Strategic or Adaptability Plan at all in place, much less a Succession Plan.

The process of Succession Planning isn’t just a matter of generating a list of names to replace someone in a given role. It’s a critical component of talent management that includes training and development for those who will eventually take important leadership roles at every level in the organization. I’ve seen more than my share of organizational failures because of poor succession practices motivated by crisis, ego, nepotism, or my least favorite, extreme diversity, just to name a few. It doesn’t take long for these kinds of motivators to embed themselves in the culture, thereby guaranteeing a culture of failure, as well.

I could take the rest of this post and focus on providing a litany of addresses and resolutions for Succession Planning. I could provide clichéd terminology about leadership. For example, an organization needs to demonstrate a commitment to innovation and high-quality products and services by developing leaders with the authority and credibility to push the workforce to meet desired objectives. I don’t know about you, but I get tired of hearing the same-old word speak from so-called subject matter experts on development that clearly haven’t enough innovation or creativeness than to use such scripted language. It really wears me out.

Yes, it’s a given that organizations need to identify those with the necessary technical and process skills. But let’s face it! The root of every successful organization is timely decision-making. If leaders aren’t in place and equipped to know what’s next, why it’s important and how to allocate resources appropriately, then the rest of it really doesn’t matter.

Yes, organizations need to put a structured plan in place for leadership continuity. However, for that to happen, they need to zero in on identifying individuals who have leadership potential.

So, why am I focusing on identification? Because, even with organizations that do have Succession Plans in place; have all of the training and development resources required in place; have a deep talent pool to pull from in place; have external stakeholders raving about great performance and leadership in place; they still rely on successful performance as the best indicator of leadership. The fact of the matter is successful performance does not guarantee successful leadership. I was taught many years ago that good numbers can mask a lot of problems, especially if you’re not paying attention to details beyond the numbers.

In the first chapter of my first book I Didn’t Ask You to Dance, I Asked You to Talk!, I write about my first encounter with Sam Walton, how he became my mentor and some of the most important lessons in leadership I learned over the course of our relationship. I didn’t realize then that the first lesson he taught me was at our very first meeting when I was 16 years old. That lesson was how to see something in someone else that they can’t see in themselves. It took me a few years to understand and then to replicate how he did that. He was a master at surrounding himself with talent and I learned to become one by focusing on the following five (5) factors.

1. Focus on Potential, not Performance.

Performance defines ability and expertise. It’s a metric to keep in mind but not the sole metric. Some individuals aren’t cut out to be leaders, even though their performance is at the higher end of the scale. They don’t have the capacity, or the desire and are often content to be followers. I’ve seen many set up to fail because they were promoted for performance or as the result of one of the other motivations I mentioned previously.

2. Note the level of Engagement. Are they a Catalyst or a Watcher?

There are those in every organization who make things happen by making the decisions necessary to take challenges and opportunities to their logical conclusion. There are also those that prefer to watch and wait for things to happen before they take the necessary risks. Look for potential leaders in the ranks of the former, not the latter.

An individual must feel invested in an organization’s objectives and should see their professional achievements through the prism of organizational growth. Ask Does this individual proactively make suggestions for process improvement and show interest in going beyond their personal perspective to seek out new learnings and opportunities for personal growth?

3. Are they Accountable or are they just ‘running for office’?

Individuals who are accountable do not shy away from taking responsibility for their actions because it might reflect poorly on them. They’re not afraid to be accountable for failure because they understand it’s the best way to learn. You’ll also find that they’re very good at holding accountability with others, as well.

4. Look for evidence of Empathy & Emotional Intelligence.

Individuals with these traits are great team players, put others before themselves, take time to interact with everyone, focuses on building personal relationships and is a master listener. This kind of individual can constructively use an understanding of people for the benefit of the organization.

5. Look for remarkable Communication Skills.

As an Adjunct Professor, my focus in the classroom wasn’t with how well graduate students could test. I was more interested in their cognitive skills. In short, I wanted to know how well they thought things through, and could they articulate and write their thought process at a level I knew the marketplace required.

Elite Leaders have extraordinary communication skills. If they want to make a particular point, they’re able to do so effortlessly. They’re able to do the same in written form, as well. This ability to explain ideas in a clear and concise manner with specifics that are simple, relevant and compelling is very rare.

Truth be told, the best way I’ve learned to spot the best, brightest and most passionate is by asking a lot of questions. It’s in the listening and watching for the answers that you’ll see the potential for leadership reveal itself.


Written by Maxie Carpenter

Maxie Carpenter was formerly Vice President of HR & Talent Development for Wal-Mart Stores. After a 27-year career, he began to pursue a number of other interests, which included alternative education, nonprofits, consulting, writing and public speaking.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: