By POALAC Board Member and Retired Commander Keith Bushey
There is no magic process to ensure that those individuals selected as supervisors, managers and executives ultimately attain and exercise solid leadership. This challenge is further exacerbated by the reality that some people reach and remain at a plateau, and do not continue to grow and advance. Identifying and mentoring those subordinates who appear to have the strongest potential for continued career growth is an organizational responsibility as well as an imperfect professional challenge.
If there is any one concept that holds the strongest potential for identifying persons for leadership positions, it would be, “that the greatest predictor of how someone is going to perform in the future is how they have performed in the past.” While most would likely agree that there is some validity to this concept most would also likely agree that there are no guarantees of enhanced performance levels, but also when and at what position a person may cease to be as effective as desired.
As someone with scores of years in leadership positions, and having witnessed first-hand the realities mentioned above, both personally and in others, I have come to firmly believe that certain personal characteristics are valid indicators of potentially solid future leadership effectiveness. People are who they are and despite all that we do to achieve the expectations of our positions the very human consequence is to – at some point – default back to our core personal characteristics. That being the case, it strikes me as making a good deal of sense to identify early those personal characteristics that bode well for leadership potential, and to factor this reality and those characteristics into our mentoring and promotional processes.
This type of an honest assessment can also be valuable in helping all of our employees in the pursuit of workplace paths where they can be the most successful. While the process of identifying certain personal characteristics can arguably be helpful in mentoring all employees, it pains me to remind the reader that we are not often successful in helping a struggling person in a critical position transition from the role of manager to one of being a true leader. I have had several situations where I have essentially failed because of placing good and decent persons with questionable skill levels in positions “that they would hopefully grow into,” and it just did not happen. Our workplaces are unique places where there are often a variety of factors that influence promotional processes, which in my judgment further increases the importance of recognizing the relationship between core personal characteristics and professional growth potential.
Core Personal Characteristics Reflecting Leadership Potential
Character & Honesty
This is far beyond just telling the truth, and involves consistent credibility in both deed and spirit. When a heart tells you what to do and the mind tells you how to do it, the end outcome is more likely than not something that will withstand the test of time. Those employees who generally enjoy the respect of their co- workers most likely possess these traits.
Continuous Sharpening of Communications Skills
A person’s ability to lead people and influence events is near completely dependent on communications skills. The world is full of very bright and intelligent people who possess the highest degrees of solid intentions and commitment, but who because of less-than-optimum communications skills make only minimal difference in professional endeavors. Conversely, the world is also full of people whose superb communications skills mask their less-than-optimum personal and professional characteristics! True leaders are solid performers who also excel in oral and written communications.
One of my strongest developmental beliefs is related to written communications skills, which are related not just to the issue of becoming a leader, but also to the issue of continued upward accent in the organizational leadership arena. I have witnessed far too many instances where folks with solid leadership skills have reached and leveled out at a plateau beneath their potential because their written communications skills did not continue to grow as well of their other professional qualities. Those persons who make statements such as, “I have others who can write for me,” are doing themselves and the organization a disservice. Those individuals who reach the upper levels in the leadership arena communicate in a variety of ways in both the organizational and professional realms, and need to be strong written communicators.
There is a form of courage that is even more rare than raw physical courage, and that is the inclination and ability to be forceful and candid with co-workers and superiors, and where appropriate actually intervene to hopefully prevent them from making serious mistakes. The world is full of people who will be candid after the fact, but there are far fewer who will instantly intervene to prevent a problem from occurring. The manners of input and intervention are also factors to be observed, considering the potential long-term consequences to the relationships involved. Unfortunately, there is no magic way to ensure that candid and forceful input to the boss is not tantamount to professional suicide; one of life’s many potential consequences that contribute to the uniqueness of our workplaces. Leadership is more art than science, and the art is often imperfect!
Personal & Organizational Loyalty
Seeing a vocation as a profession and in some cases, a following, as opposed to a job is among the factors that set leaders apart from managers. People who are loyal to both their chosen profession and to the organization are reflecting solid character traits. Watching shifting loyalties and the weight of those loyalties, especially as a person transitions from one organization to another, tells you a great deal about a person’s wisdom and character. These can be treacherous waters with no guarantee of successful navigation. A set of instructions of how to get this right does not exist.
Providing Input in a Fair & Balanced Manner
Among the most critical and sober responsibilities of a leader is the evaluation of persons and functions, and the subsequent making of decisions. Leaders badly need unbiased and accurate information, and not input which is potentially biased, slanted or tainted in some way. The only appropriate manner in which a person should influence the boss is through fair and balanced input; free of bias, personal motive or emotion. An employee who lobbies the boss runs the risk of becoming the problem.
Reasonable Inclination to Help Others Succeed
There is no magic formula for recognizing the perfect balance between reasonable self-interests and the appropriate degrees of support and assistance to others. However, smart people will recognize the appropriate balance when they see it.
Routinely Doing Kind Things for Other People
I strongly believe that a valid indication of character is a person’s tendency to routinely do considerate things for other persons when there is nothing to be gained for the thoughtful gestures. The employee who finds and provides baseball cards to the janitor’s kid is my kind of person.
Demonstrates Genuine Sincerity & Appreciation
This can be difficult to evaluate, but not impossible. Just about every person who I know who once held a position of strong leadership will tell of painful recollections of former protégés for whom they professionally invested, mentored and helped succeed but whose reciprocal good will evaporated when the former boss was no longer in a position to influence their upward career trajectory. Over and above the pain of such professional betrayal is the very real issue of genuine versus perceived loyalty and character. Beyond the painful issue of indifference, most of the individuals in my life who demonstrated such “selective sincerity” also turned out to be less effective in positions of responsibility than I originally would have thought, and fall into the category of mistakes that I have made in my career.
Identifying the trait of genuine versus superficial sincerity within the work force is not easily done, but there are some behaviors that might serve as indicators. Just about all employees show goodwill and warmth to the boss, but their overall interaction with persons at the lower levels of the workplace and social spectrum can be telling. Pay attention to how people interact not just with the CEO, but with clerical and maintenance personnel as well. Also note levels of interactions with others for whom there is little or no likelihood of professional association. Are the interactions perfunctorily cordial or of a manner that reflects sincere respect for all other persons?
Active Listening & Carefully Evaluating
There is often a big difference between a “good listener” and an “active listener.” Listening carefully and digesting what is being said, with brief interjections for clarification, bodes well for leadership potential. People who do more talking than listening seldom make good leaders. On a related note, these types of behaviors are almost always recognized by their peers and others in the lower levels of the organization.
Routinely Plays a Role in Both Preventing & Solving Problems
Those employees who prevent problems before the boss even recognizes the existence of a problem are worthy of keeping your eye on. This inclination is often based on the very valuable trait of “looking over the horizon.” The inclination and ability of a leader to recognize and plan for the potential multiple consequences of anticipated actions before taking those actions, is an extraordinarily valuable asset.
Standing Tall in the Face of Personal Adversity
When professionally kicked to the curb and subjected to withering criticism, mere mortals slip into obscurity and often become marginal employees. Men and women of extraordinary character pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and continue to march. Although others can continue to be critical, the only person who can take away the reality of strong character is the person involved. Those who continue to “lean forward” and demonstrate strong character will be the long-term winners, both organizationally and in the minds of others.
Performing Credibly in the Face of Organizational Adversity
All organizations are unique and different, and the perfect organization or the absolutely perfect boss does not exist. While not everyone sees things in the same light, the fact is that there are times when work places are not good places and where the person in charge is neither qualified or worthy. Troublesome situations of this nature are fraught with career-ending land mines and with challenges for which no written guidance exists. While hunkering down and staying out of the line of fire typically does little for the organization, initiative and efforts to move forward can have serious repercussions as well. Employees who are able to credibly navigate these types of troubled journeys are demonstrating some very valuable skills.
In the development of this article I did something that I have never done before; I intentionally did not review related literature and I did not seek the perspective or opinion of others. It was my intention to do a “brain drain” of my personal perspective, and not dilute my primary thoughts with contamination from others. Upon completion of the article, I see that I achieved my goal! Without being critical of other writings on identifying leadership potential, I found that my perspective is typically somewhat different from the thoughts of others who have shared thoughts on the same subject. I have also resisted the temptation to add additional valid thoughts that are not among my personal priorities.
I think this difference is a good thing, as it gives the reader additional perspective from someone who has spent a great deal of time in the leadership trenches and who among successes has also made just about every personnel related mistake that can be made. I am not the least bit critical of the writings and perspective of others; to the contrary, all of the issues I have reviewed strike me as solid and reasonable. My perspective is a product of my experiences, good and otherwise, primarily in the public and military sectors. While pretty comfortable with my knowledge and performance these days, both came at a healthy and painful price earlier in my career.
No one person possesses all the wisdom necessary to be the perfect leader. By availing ourselves of the opinions and experience of others, all of us continue to grow and nurture our own perspectives of how best to lead. To that end, I hope that my thoughts on identifying potential leaders in the workforce will be helpful to the those now in the leadership arenas.
About the Author
Keith Bushey retired from the Los Angeles Police Department as a commander, from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy chief and from the United States Marine Corps Reserve as a colonel. Others law enforcement experience includes having served as a Los Angeles County deputy Sheriff, a State of California deputy game warden, and as the Marshal of San Bernardino County. He is an instructor emeritus for the FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association and has lectured and written extensively in the areas of leadership, management and ethics. His entire eight booklet Leadership Series is in the public domain and may be downloaded without cost from KeithBushey.com.