Unlock leadership potential: how to

A new survey by the DDI and the CIPD has revealed – not that it comes as much of a surprise – that the standard of leadership among British businesses is poor. And while the Daily Mail readers among you may lay this at the door of negligent parents, poor teachers, a failing education system and today’s celebrity culture, the more rational among us have accepted that recruits are not actually becoming less intelligent. The fault then would seem to lie with the organisations who are failing to recognise or foster potential.

Much of the problem lies with the restrictions placed on recruits, who, whatever the management consultants might say, are often actively encouraged to think inside the box, encouraged to know their place and to follow the career progression path assigned them.

According toJulia Middleton, founder and chief executive of international leadership development organisation Common Purpose: “There is a misconception that people must start their careers in a box and that it is only in the limited space of their job description that they can grow and develop”.

While employees do need to toe the corporate line, it pays to accept that there will always be mavericks, and that they may well wind up being the visionaries who take the organisation forward. As Middleton remarks: “Leadership potential is a precious resource, and if unlocked and developed, can be an important source of innovation and creativity that will help drive an organisation forward. Remarkable, exciting and unexpected things can happen when leadership potential is unlocked so it is a massive waste when it is overlooked or worse, locked”.

Accept that not everyone is cut out for the same career path, and that forcing some creative type to follow the same developmental route as a less creative colleague could lead to you not only failing to recognise leadership potential, but losing it to a competitor.

Middleton says that “the best way to unlock leadership potential is to avoid harnessing it and instead either provide opportunities for people to build diverse networks, form new partnerships, and initiate new projects, inside and outside the organisation or to support them when they do this themselves”. Some people develop faster than others. Recognise that while one new graduate will make hard work of their first few years in the workplace, another will storm through them and end up twiddling their thumbs.

Either augment their development processes or encourage them to find something outside work that might help develop new skills which will also benefit their career. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole. And don’t do an Alan Sugar and condemn someone for being ‘too zany’.

The corporate world can accommodate all sorts of individuals, and can only benefit by doing so. As an HR practitioner, you will have more access to more members of staff than almost anyone else. Teach yourself to spot that all too elusive ‘x factor’ (preferably not in the guise of a break-dancing teenager or a dancing dog) and know what you are going to do to encourage it.

Not all potential leaders will be interested in joining the succession pool or having regular canapés with the board, so try to be more inventive – bring a group of your future stars together and send them off to read to school children, market a charity or serve breakfast to the homeless. See how they perform outside the corporate box. Find out what makes them tick, and what makes them want to be your future leader.

Expert’s view

Julia Middleton, founder and chief executive, Common Purpose

What are the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges are caused by organisations not allowing their employees to stretch themselves beyond their role. By not allowing people to explore opportunities and partnerships across and outside the organisation, they are missing out on the vital learning, contacts and experience that these people could be bring back into the organisation.

Another problem is that the leadership spark is often extinguished as soon as it begins to grow. This can happen when employees start to take the lead and initiate new projects, question established work practices and look to address some of the organisation’s most intractable problems. As soon as they do this, they receive a chilly reception from the rest of the organisation and are told to get back into the narrow box that is their job description.

What should you avoid doing?

  • Locking leadership potential and allow it to roam.
  • Restricting people and stopping them from doing things outside the organisation and beyond their brief.
  • Limiting people by their job description.

Top tips

  • Organisations should encourage people to take on responsibilities that are outside their remit and support them in the projects and solutions they initiate. They need to provide developmental opportunities and experiences that allow staff to broaden as well as focus. All staff should be given the chance to see the bigger picture for the organisation and to have their ideas heard on the strategic direction for the organisation.
  • They should encourage the building of broad and diverse networks, both inside and outside organisation. This will widen the horizons of their staff and help them spot opportunities where they can make a valuable contribution outside their traditional role or openings for them to initiate original business enterprises.
  • Organisations should look for leaders who know how to develop the leadership potential in others so that they can develop the next generation of leaders.

Further information


The Little Book of Leadership: Fifty Tips to Unlock Leadership Potential

Mitchell Kusy, Scott Allen

Moonlight Publishing, £6.59

ISBN 097796034X

Grow Your Own Leaders: How to Identify, Develop, and Retain Leadership Talent

William C. Byham, Audrey B. Smith, Matthew J. Paese

Financial Times/ Prentice Hall

ISBN 013009398X

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