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How to Identify a True Leader

Sean Peek
Sean Peek

The business.com community asked how to test for leadership ability. We found answers.

The success of a business lies in the hands of its leaders. The culture of a business is first established in the workplace, and leaders set the tone. Businesses will crumble under leaders with unattainable goals, a lack of vision, broken communication or big egos. With the right leaders, businesses will soar. With so much on the line, it is critical to be able to identify top leaders.

How to identify leadership skills

1. Observe their character and work ethic.

Before deciding if someone is a fit for a leadership role, you want to determine what you're looking for in a leader. You need to know what characteristics and work ethic you want your company leaders to have. From that point, you can begin to observe which of those qualities you see inside the workplace and seek out potential leaders. [Read related article: Popular Management Theories Decoded]

Marcel Schwantes, principal and founder of Leadership from the Core, talks about ways to identify a leader within a business. He explains that great leaders put the business first and lead by example.

"They are not motivated by power, wealth, status, fame or approval," Schwantes wrote. "They are, instead, intrinsically motivated and humble enough to always do the right thing."

A true leader communicates with their team to keep them updated and show that they are valued. Marillyn Hewson, strategic advisor to the CEO  at Lockheed Martin, believes that leaders should communicate often to provide stability within the workplace, even during times of change.

"They must motivate their team to perform their best, even when the organization is experiencing uncertainty," Hewson wrote on LinkedIn. "They help those around them to keep things in perspective, and stay focused on the mission – inspiring confidence that, whatever change the organization is going through now, there's a bright future ahead."

True leaders will be the ones driving results, according to Schwantes. They will be the ones intentionally learning more, challenging themselves and others, improving the workplace environment and work ethics, and encouraging teams to achieve goals.

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2. Provide opportunities in the workplace for leadership skills to emerge.

One of the most accurate ways to test a person's leadership skills is to put them in a leadership role. This could include mentoring and coaching, or even allowing them to experience a higher position.

"Give high-potentials firsthand experience by rotating them through different roles and functions within the organization," Schwantes said. "The point is to challenge, push and stretch their skill level."

Having them try new experiences in different roles will allow you to gauge how they go about learning, if they have a growth mindset, and whether they do well under pressure and with additional responsibilities.

In his book Willpower Doesn't Work (Hachette Books, 2018), Benjamin Hardy discusses what it means to have a growth mindset and how it affects the way people work.

"You approach challenges and failures as opportunities to grow," he wrote. "You're curious and seek to expand your knowledge and horizons. If you have a growth mindset ... you believe you can actually get better at something, even though that growth is currently visible only in your mind."

FYIFYI: True leaders seek to improve themselves and their work ethics. They accept challenges as opportunities to grow, and they're eager to learn new skills.

3. Ask around.

The people who have worked side by side with potential leaders will have great insights into their skills and their impact on the business. Interviewing co-workers will give you additional feedback on whether an employee has the personality and leadership style you're looking for.

Interviewing previous managers or mentors of potential leaders would also help determine whether this person would be a good leader. They are in a unique position because not only do they have leadership experience, but they also have experience with the potential leader.

"Avoid asking leading questions like, 'Do you think Dave in Sales makes a good leader?'" Schwantes said. "Ask people who they think would make a good future leader."

4. Use predictive assessment tools and personality assessments.

Assessment tools vary in what they examine and the depth of the questions. There are personality, leadership skills and behavioral assessments. Before choosing a tool, you should make sure that it will test for the specific skills you want in a leader.

Here are a few assessment tools you can use:

  • The Predictive Index "predicts primary personality characteristics and cognitive ability so you can predict workplace behaviors and on-the-job performance."

  • CPI 260 uses "a sophisticated technique to extract detailed insights about someone's personality. It is able to summarize and explain how other people would see that person, and how others would judge their leadership style."

  • NERIS Type Explorer determines personality type and shows optimal roles (careers and hobbies) and strategies (ways of achieving goals) for each.

  • CliftonStrengths Assessment allows you to "discover what you naturally do best and learn how to develop your greatest talents."

5. Search for evidence of emotional intelligence.

According to Schwantes, emotional intelligence is an important quality for any potential leader. At its heart, it is the ability to authentically be themselves and put their character on full display. This helps them in addressing emotionally charged matters at work. While it might be easier to simply ignore the drama, doing so can lead to future problems. Make sure, when you are looking for a leader in your business, they exhibit these traits:

  1. They communicate well and express their feelings clearly and directly.

  2. Their thoughts aren't dominated by negative emotions like fear, worry, hopelessness and victimization.

  3. They have a high degree of self-awareness. When they notice the same problems coming up repeatedly, they do something to change that.

  4. They assess and process a situation carefully and from all possible angles, making sure they get to the heart of the matter.

  5. They are intrinsically motivated and humble enough to do the right thing.

Leadership skills you should be testing for

Here are some leadership skills you should keep testing for in yourself and your employees and candidates:

  • Communication skills: One of the essential leadership responsibilities is to relay information effectively to employees, senior management and the public. An organization can only accomplish its mission if the right information is transmitted to the employees. 

Did you know?Did you know? In today's era of increased remote work, ensuring leaders have strong communication skills is more critical than ever. They need to make sure their message can get across to someone who isn't always working right down the hall.

  • Relationship building: Leaders must have the ability to foster relationships with their employees and among clients. Good relations inspire a team to be more productive. Employees often go the extra mile in organizations that they feel appreciate them. Clients are loyal to companies that they have built a relationship with and where they feel valued.

  • Time management: Leaders are responsible for ensuring the organization gets value from the time allocated to accomplish business tasks. A leader must ensure team members clock in to work at the right time and that they accomplish what they are required to do within that time.

  • Trustworthiness: Leaders must build trust with their employees. This can be achieved by being honest and working with integrity. When employees trust their leaders, they engage with them more freely and give necessary feedback without fear of being victimized.

  • Confidence: Leaders must be confident in their decisions. This inspires trust in others and helps leaders to present themselves and their company well. Confidence also speaks to a person's decisiveness. Leadership often involves making difficult and important decisions.

  • Problem-Solving: Every leader must know how to solve employee or company-related problems, as they will arise frequently. Companies solve problems for consumers, but they must also be able to solve internal problems. When an employee comes to a leader with an issue, a leader should be able to help them solve it in a way that is beneficial for both the employee and the organization.
Image Credit: monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.