Skip to main content

Seven signs of leadership potential

Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?

By Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran

(Jossey-Bass, 279 pages, $33.95)

Story continues below advertisement

Leadership scholarship is all over the map on defining the prerequisites for being a top executive. But even if you know which attributes to seek, how can you be sure the person you are scouting has the strengths you are seeking (without the flaws you fear)?

Because of this dual difficulty – what to search for, and how to gauge if the characteristics are there – too many leadership selection processes backfire.

Indeed, succession planning experts Jeffrey Cohn and Jay Moran say organizations today are lousy at picking leaders. "The truth is that we don't do a competent job of selecting the men and women who have what it takes to lead," they write in Why Are We Bad at Picking Good Leaders?

They argue that seven criteria pop up over and over again as the most vital for effective leadership – the DNA, or essential building blocks, of overall success. The trick is how to spot the seven signs:


Leadership potential starts with this attribute, because no leader can be effective without integrity. The authors note that leaders can be downright dangerous if they lack integrity, as we saw, for example, with Enron's meltdown last decade.

This is a difficult characteristic to assess, so in job interviews the consultants outline several hypothetical situations drawn from business case studies to see whether the people being interviewed can recognize subtle ethical issues buried within. "Does she recognize hidden issues involving trust, consistency, or transparency? Does she perceive how circumstances might unfairly affect others? Can she draw a connection between integrity issues and overall organizational performance?" they write.

Story continues below advertisement


Just as it's impossible to be an effective leader without integrity, it's impossible to lead without knowing what makes people tick. Leaders need to be in touch with the emotions and needs of their followers, handling social relations adeptly. A 360-degree review, with questions probing these abilities, can help assess a candidate. Pay particular attention to responses about the person's listening skills. As well, the authors use crisis simulations, to see how empathetic the person is to others under pressure; or a discussion of a case study in which empathy plays a role.

Emotional intelligence

Leaders need to understand their blind spots and weaknesses, and control themselves under the scrutiny that comes with their position. This is particularly important when people move into new positions outside their comfort zones. When recruiting, probe candidates about their past experiences, looking for what they have learned – and how honest they are in revealing a less-than-sterling performance. Also, look for individuals who are passionately committed to career development, taking charge of their own careers.


Leaders imagine a better future, offering direction to followers. In assessing candidates, look for innovative thinking, keeping in mind that it often comes from a blend of diverse experiences. Also, pay particular attention in interviews to the candidate's ability to create win-win situations even when a situation seems hopeless. A winning candidate should have a healthy blend of realism and optimism, and a track record of persuading others to accept change.

Story continues below advertisement


A leader must make good decisions. This generally requires experience, and an ability to control the emotional influences that distort decision-making. The consultants test a candidate's ability to think through issues by using case studies, ideally ones that reflect issues in the candidate's own organization. The precise answer is not as important as their thinking process under pressure.


The individual must be capable of withstanding the pressures of leadership, facing attacks and setbacks with aplomb and continuing to take educated risks. The consultants offer candidates a hypothetical scenario, and evaluate the answers according to three key elements of courage: commitment to core values, ability to navigate uncertainty, and patience.


Leaders are passionate, thirsting with a drive to succeed ethically. The consultants find that in interviews for leadership positions, passionate candidates speak convincingly about how the organizational mission and their personal passions are intertwined. "Using the details of one's life story to show why the job matters on a visceral level is important. A passionate candidate will explain how this life story feeds into the demands of the job for which she is interviewing," they note.

Candidate selection, be it for hiring or promotion, is always complicated. You may not do a lousy job at leadership selection and the seven criteria raised here are not novel, but the book, which is clearly written and thorough, would certainly help to give an improved focus and some valuable techniques for your leadership recruitment.



The 40th anniversary edition of What Colour is Your Parachute (Ten Speed Press, 364 pages, $20.99) by Richard Bolles helps with job hunting and career change in today's labour market.

The Spaces in Between (Templar Publishing, 240 pages, $19.95) argues that at any given time, more data is absent than present. So to be successful we have to be comfortable dealing with the wisdom, interpretation and truth that lies between the facts we know.

Your Accomplishments are Suspiciously Hard to Verify (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 208 pages, $19.99) is the latest collection of insights on the workplace from Scott Adams and the folks who habituate his Dilbert cartoons.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles as we switch to a new provider. We are behind schedule, but we are still working hard to bring you a new commenting system as soon as possible. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to