PICKING POTENTIAL LEADERS
by John C. Maxwell
The Law of the Inner Circle: Those who are closest to me will
determine the level of my success.
The year was 1864. The battle for America’s future had been
raging for over two and a half years. Brother fought brother
and neighbor fought neighbor to determine the destiny of a
Despite having a superior economy, an enormous edge in resources,
and a far greater population, the North had been unable to gain
the upper hand in the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln was
frustrated at the North’s inability to achieve victory.
Lincoln was forced to confront the reality of the Law of the
Inner Circle. Although a brilliant leader, Lincoln was not a
military man. As such, his success overseeing the Civil War
depended upon finding a skillful field general to translate
material advantages into actual victories.
Lincoln’s two prior military commanders, George McClellan and
Henry Halleck, had failed miserably. Each had repeatedly
squandered opportunities to crush the Southern Army. With the
war’s outcome hanging in the balance, Lincoln’s next selection
would be one of the biggest decisions of his Presidency.
Noting the indecisiveness of previous army generals, Lincoln
chose tough-minded Ulysses S. Grant to lead the army. Grant’s
willingness to pay the price of a total war depleted the South’s
scant resources, and led to the North’s eventual victory.
Identifying Potential Leaders
Good leaders realize the significance of surrounding themselves
with talented people. That’s why leaders repeatedly ask me, “How
can I be sure to hire the right person?”
I have never discovered a foolproof hiring practice, but I do
know finding a great hire goes hand in hand with identifying
Over the course of the next two editions of “Leadership Wired”,
I’ll explore eleven questions I use to spot a potential leader.
Before I begin, I’d like to give credit to my mentor and friend
Fred Smith. Several of these questions were developed from my
conversations with him.
1. When looking for a leader, do I see a constructive spirit of
Constructive discontent is a leader’s unscratchable itch. It’s
the trait making a leader averse to average and opposed to the
Potential leaders possessing constructive discontent will
question existing systems and push for improvements. They
perceive problems and come up with solutions.
As Kouzes and Posner say, leaders have a pioneering instinct.
They are not afraid to step out into the unknown. They are
willing to take risks, innovate, and experiment in order to find
new and better ways to operate.
2. Do they offer practical ideas?
Highly original thinkers can have problems leading when they are
unable to judge their ideas realistically. Brainstorming is not
a helpful practice in leadership unless useful ideas are
In the words of John Galsworthy, “Idealism increases in direct
proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” Potential
leaders have the rare ability to translate idealistic goals into
realistic and workable actions. Leaders are not frozen when
obstacles disrupt the perfect plan. They have the flexibility
and fortitude to account for resistance to the ideal.
3. When they speak, who listens?
Potential leaders have a “holding court” quality about them.
Their words carry weight. What they say is valuable and
When watching groups of people interact, in a matter of five
minutes, I can pick the leader every time. When it comes time
for the group to make a decision, all eyes focus upon the person
with the greatest influence.
The extent of a person’s influence speaks volumes about their
potential in leadership. Here are seven key areas to evaluate
the level of influence in a possible hire:
Character — who they are.
Relationships — who they know.
Knowledge — what they know.
Passion — how strongly they feel.
Experience — where they’ve been.
Past successes — what they’ve done.
Ability — what they can do.
4. Do others respect them?
Respect is vital for leadership, yet it can be difficult to
discern in young leaders who have not fully developed. Peer
respect doesn’t reveal ability, but it shows character. I’ll
conclude this edition with the following acronym on respect. I
have found it to be a helpful device to evaluate the
respectability of emerging leaders.
R — Respects their coworkers and exhibits self-respect. Instead
of asking for respect, they give it and earn it.
E — Exceeds the expectations of others. Naturally sets the bar
higher than anybody else sets it for them.
S — Stands firm on convictions and values.
P — Possesses maturity well beyond their years and shows self-
E — Experiences a healthy family life.
C — Contributes to the success of others.
T — Thinks ahead of others. Potential leaders are marked by
their ability to outpace the thinking of those around them.
“This article is used by
permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell’s free monthly e-newsletter
‘Leadership Wired’ available at www.INJOY.com.”