How to Unearth the Leaders of the Future – and Why It’s so Important

By Sarah-Jane, CEO of the Work Psychologists

If the last year of our lives and work have shown us anything, surely it is that we cannot predict the future. The term VUCA has been widespread in business for a number of years now, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of a global pandemic to highlight just how vital the leaders of the future are going to be.


Finding and developing those leaders, however, is no easy task. The leaders who excelled in the past are often sought out for positions that they do not necessarily have the skills, aptitude or desire to fulfil in the present and future. The word ‘potential’ is bandied about in organisations large and small, but so often, it is wrongly equated with past performance. Past performance does not determine future potential.


Unearthing genuine leadership potential, particularly for an unknown and unpredictable future, requires more rigorous hiring practices than simply interviewing and hiring based on past achievements. At The Work Psychologists, we have spent a number of years developing a model of high potential and an assessment process that incorporates a vast body of research and insight from the world of business psychology. The findings are compelling.


It turns out that future leaders have a number of skills and qualities which cannot be identified from past performance alone, but which can be clearly identified and assessed for. Here are 6 things to look for when assessing or selecting your next future leader.


1. Firepower

There is a strong evidence base for measuring cognitive ability as one if not the key factor in assessing potential and differentiating candidates known as High Potentials (e.g. McRae & Furnham, 2014). Cognitive ability is overlooked in certain models of potential, yet the evidence shows it is fundamental to leadership success.


2. Uniqueness of You

An individual’s personality traits directly affect their behaviour and performance at work and strongly influence how they interact with others. Similar to cognitive ability, most personality traits are relatively stable and constant over time. It is worth noting that there is no one list of traits which ultimately predict the effectiveness of a leader, because each leader works in a unique context and different traits are more or less important at different stages of leadership (such as conscientiousness, which declines in importance the more senior a leader becomes). Traits like conscientiousness, adjustment, openness/curiosity, and emotional intelligence are key to identifying leaders who can not only lead with vision and drive delivery of their vision but also have the crucial ability to motivate and empower others in their organisations.


3. Transformational Purpose

Motivation describes an individual’s levels of drive, energy and ambition. Widely explored in psychology, it determines a person’s work ethic or willingness to work hard. In High Potentials, motivation – particularly intrinsic motivation, or the desire to do good work as an end in itself and not for some external reward acts as a talent accelerator. An individual’s level of talent is not static; the greater the motivation, the more their talent grows.


4. Reflective Growth

To be fit for the future, organisations need leaders who can think and work systemically, adapt well to ever-changing circumstances and deal with complexity. These can all be assessed under learning agility, which De Meuse et al. (2010) describe as “the willingness to learn from experience, and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions”. Such leaders are open-minded, flexible, keen to stretch themselves yet constantly reflective upon both their successes and failures.


5. Understanding the Uniqueness of the Role

A weak link in many assessments is an overemphasis on assessing leadership competencies without sufficient understanding of the unique role, context, dynamics and demands of the system that the person will be working within. Generating a solid understanding of ‘potential for what?’ and which psychological characteristics are important for success in this particular role is central to finding the leaders of the future.


6. Entrepreneurial Drive

The more complex the world becomes, the less effective traditional approaches to leadership are (and this is something we have particularly seen of late with the Covid pandemic). Entrepreneurial leaders are creative and opportunistic in creating value for businesses, stakeholders and society. They’re driven rather than set back by challenges and are comfortable with a level of personal and operational risk and in order to realise their business ideas.


Each of these six factors has vast research behind it and are best assessed using a multi-method approach (see for example Schmidt, quoted in Martin, 2014, HBR) using a number of data points but we hope even this short summary highlights why unearthing the leaders of the future needs to be a key priority in organisations that want to thrive rather than merely survive in the future, and why we need to urgently move beyond hiring based purely on past performance, likeability or intuitive fit.

Our Partnership