Those Who Want to Lead vs. Those Who Can

Author: Warren Bobrow | Source: HCI | Published: May 15, 2013

I’m not a big fan of leadership theories or any of the mysticism that surrounds what makes a great leader. Yes, we need people to direct employees and inspire others in the organization (personally, I think the second one comes from individual employees, but that’s a topic for another blog post), but exotic hypotheses about how this works have not been supported.
There are, however, concrete skills that effective leaders possess. They are smart (and I mean this in the IQ sort of way), conscientious, willing to work with others, and know enough about the technical aspects of the work to make good strategic decisions. Stylistically, effective leaders will be more successful in situations where they bring order to chaos or when they address their followers’ needs when people already know what to do.
Another important aspect of leadership that is often overlooked is the desire to do it. Raise your coffee cup (or soda can) if you work in an organization that promotes the top individual contributors into leadership positions. Don’t feel bad—every industry does this. But, consider that top performers are not necessarily equipped, or want, to be effective leaders. So, how do you identify who have this potential?
I was recently at an event for healthcare executives and one of the panel discussions was on the topic of which leadership skills are needed for the future in the industry. Afterwards, I spoke to some members of the panel and a few other attendees and asked, “How do you identify future leaders?” The answers varied, but the most popular response was to strongly consider those who asked for more leadership training or responsibilities.
While wanting to lead is a necessary component to being a leader, just because I want to be a leader does not mean that I’ll make a good one. If you wait for people to self identify as a leader you may miss out on great leadership talent (though, a forewarning - making a big deal out of developing those who self identify as leaders will develop a culture that encourages it). If you want to be more proactive about identifying leadership talent, here are a few techniques to do so: 
1. Develop specific criteria for HR and directors/VPs to identify potential leaders. Does the person want to lead? Is he or she well networked in your company/industry? Is he or she seen as an influencer? Does he or she master new tasks quickly?
2. Have those individuals identified participate in an in-depth and objective leadership assessment. 360 feedback can be an eye opener, but it is not a good approach when people are competing (or perceive that they are) for limited resources. Self-report assessments are accurate and expedient, but they tend to measure traits, which are good for selecting leaders, but are tough to develop. I prefer a process like an assessment center where you can measure and provide feedback on specific behaviors. Such a process gives everyone the same opportunities to lead in the same situations so you can accurately compare them. You may be surprised by the results, as this will likely turn up some diamonds in the rough—people with great leadership potential who haven’t had the opportunity to show their skills to management yet.
3. Make assessment part of the process and not just a single, one-time event. Use results to guide their development process and methods, which can include everything from feedback, to classroom training, to rotating assignments.
4. Continue measuring the outcomes of leadership behaviors as individuals progress in the organization. Do they keep employees engaged? Are they achieving measurable results?
What’s vital is that you manage the leadership identification, evaluation, and development process so you see who can lead in your organization, and not just those people who want to. Such important decisions should not be left to the first one who raises his or her hand.
Warren Bobrow, Ph.D. specializes in employee selection, manager assessment, structured interviews, and opinion surveys. He has worked in a diverse range of industries, including customer contact centers, finance, health care, petroleum, retail, distribution, telecommunications, utilities, and apparel manufacturing throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Dr. Bobrow strives to create assessment programs that a client can easily manage and are designed to meet their specific needs. You can read his blog for occasional comments on leadership and employee selection.