Spotting a New Leader

How can you spot talent? Fred Smith gives us five clues to identify future leadership.

By Fred Smith

The most gifted athletes rarely make good coaches. The best violinist will not necessarily make the best conductor. Nor will the best teacher automatically become the best department head. So it's critical to distinguish between the two different skills of performance and leading the performance. It's also important to determine whether a person is capable of learning leadership. The natural leader will stand out. The trick is identifying those who are capable of learning leadership over time.

Here are five traits to help identify whether someone is capable of learning to lead. This is not exhaustive, but just a start. We will talk more about this later.

1. Leadership in the past.

The best predictor of the future is the past. I always take of any worker who tells me he is superintendent of a Sunday school or a deacon in his church or a Boy Scout leader. If he shows leadership outside of the job, I want to find out if he has leadership potential on the job.

2. The capacity to create or catch vision.

When I talk to people about the future, I want their eyes to light up. I want them to ask the right questions about what I'm talking about.

The founder of Jefferson Standard built a successful insurance company from scratch. He assembled some of the greatest insurance people by simply asking, "Why don't you come and help me build something great?" A person who doesn't feel the thrill of challenge is not a potential leader.

3. A constructive spirit of discontent.

Some people would call this criticism, but there's a big difference in being constructively discontent and being critical. If somebody says, "There's got to be a better way to do this," I see if there's leadership potential by asking, "Have you ever thought about what that better way might be?" If he says no, he is being critical, not constructive. But if he says yes, he's challenged by a constructive spirit of discontent. That's the unscratchable itch. It is always in the leader. People locked in the status quo are not leaders. I want to know if this person believes there is always a better way to do something. "How would you do it if you were the boss?"

4. Practical ideas.

Highly original people are often not good leaders because they are unable to judge their output; they need somebody else to say, "This will work" or "This won't." I have found that high-flying kites need someone holding the tail to avoid being fried by the power lines. Brainstorming is not a particularly helpful practice in leadership, because ideas need to stay practical. Not everybody with practical ideas is a leader, of course, but leaders seem to be able to identify which ideas are practical and which aren't.

5. A willingness to take responsibility.

One night at the end of the second shift, I walked out of the plant and passed the porter. As head of operations, I had started my day at the beginning of the first shift.

The porter said, "Mr. Smith, I sure wish I had your pay, but I don't want your worry."

He equated responsibility and worry. He wanted to be able to drop his responsibility when he walked out the door and not carry it home. That's understandable, but it's not a trait in potential leaders. I thought about the porter's comment driving home. If the vice-president and the porter were paid the same money, I'd still want to be vice-president. Carrying responsibility doesn't intimidate me, because the joy of accomplishment-the vicarious feeling of contributing to other people-is what leadership is all about.