How to Develop Potential Leaders Leadership

Top 5 Qualities and Skills You Should Look for in Potential Leaders

In organizations, people will always come and go. Therefore, to remain viable, an organization must develop a pipeline of potential leaders.

John Maxwell describes the importance of looking for potential leaders in his book, Developing the Leaders Around You, when he writes, “There is something much more important and scarce than ability: It is the ability to recognize ability. One of the primary responsibilities of a successful leader is to identify potential leaders. It’s not always an easy job, but it is critical.”[ref]John Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You: How to Help Others Reach Their Full Potential (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 37. [/ref] 

Top 5 Qualities and Skills You Should Look for in Potential Leaders

Photo Credit: Robert Sullivan

To develop this pipeline, one must identify potential leaders with both prerequisite qualities and prerequisite skills.


Some people are happy with their current job responsibilities and do not want to stretch into new roles. This means that some people will not want to be developed into leaders. Maxwell’s summary is relevant:

“Nurture all of your people, equip many. But develop only a few—the few who are ready and willing.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

Below are descriptions of the prerequisite qualities for potential leaders that should not just be nurtured or equipped, but also developed.

Good Character

Good character means potential leaders have a good reputation in their community as responsible citizens. This means potential leaders can pass simple background checks, are not being investigated by law enforcement for prior crimes, etc. Potential leaders are people of good integrity and are trustworthy.

Positive Attitude

While potential leaders need not be the most positive person in a room, they do need to have a positive outlook on situations. One of the main responsibilities of a leader is to solve problems and having a positive outlook on people and problems is required for potential leaders.


Servanthood should be seen in potential leaders’ willingness to submit, play as a team, and follow the leader. Part of servanthood is also seeing the big picture of an organization and focusing on contributing to fulfilling the organization’s vision. Potential leaders must show signs they will work hard, make tough decisions, and put the needs of the organization above their own. 


Potential leaders must show a desire for professional growth and be open to coaching from other people. A desire to do their work well and improve means potential leaders accept constructive criticism and use it to improve their work and skills.


The quality often overlooked in potential leaders is follow-through. American culture loves visionary leaders who are charismatic and likable. Yet, often visionary leaders are terrible at getting work done and seeing projects through completion.

Follow-through is a must for potential leaders without a large staff working beneath them to catch all the loose ends that fall through the cracks. For potential leaders to succeed they should be known for saying what they will do and following through on those commitments.[ref]Malphurs and Mancini, Building Leaders, 136-137; Maxwell, Developing Leaders, 23.[/ref]


When creating an ongoing leadership development plan, leaders must clarify what competencies are needed for potential leaders.[ref]Adams, Nonprofit Leadership Transition and Development, 256.[/ref] Senior leadership at an organization must look at what leadership capacities they will need to fulfill their mission in the next three to five years and based on that, create a list of competencies and skills that leaders need to have.[ref]Kramer and Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development, 54.[/ref]

While that list will be different for each organization, the development areas below should be a starting point for Christian and secular organizations. Most potential leaders will not have a high level of competency in each area, but current leaders need to believe potential leaders can learn and grow in these areas.


Ability is more than the desire or aspiration to be a leader. It is the innate characteristics and learned skills needed to carry out day-to-day work. These are things such as cognitive abilities, emotional intelligence, and technical skills. These are the leader’s actions and behavior in what is called hard or task skills and soft or relational skills. Hard or task skills are how to cast vision, develop core values, manage a budget, and teach. Soft or relational skills are how to listen to others, provide encouragement, mentor others, and resolve conflict.


Engagement includes four elements. The first is emotional commitment, which is how the employee values, believes in, and enjoys the organization where he works. The second is relational commitment in which an employee believes that staying with the organization serves his best interest. Third is a discretionary commitment, which is the employee’s willingness to go the extra mile. Fourth is intent to stay as an employee desires to continue with that organization.


Often this is described as the Personal Awareness and Management quadrant of “Emotional Intelligence” in which a person recognizes her emotions, identifies them as good or bad, manages that emotion, and explores why that emotion has arisen.[ref]See Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1995), 43, 48; Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 39-50, 253-256.[/ref]

Applied Researcher

Personal and professional growth are not enough for a potential leader. And a potential leader must anchor innovation and strategy in data and evidence. This data and evidence can be acquired through various means. Academic journals, books, magazines, and podcasts are all ways that potential leaders can acquire data and evidence for improved work.

Savvy Networker

A potential leader builds relationships with colleagues and taps into the resources he rarely has access to but which can be reached through others.[ref]Callanan. “Under-Investing in Leadership.” Kramer and Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development, 64-65. Malphurs and Mancini, Building Leaders, 147-151.[/ref]


The natural inclination is for current leaders to seek potential leaders like themselves. This list of qualities and skills should serve as a safe boundary that current leaders can use to identify potential leaders. With this list in place, current leaders can find potential leaders and implement the 70-20-10 principle for their development, which is the topic of my next blog post.  


By Christopher L. Scott

Christopher L. Scott serves as senior pastor at Lakeview Missionary Church in Moses Lake, Washington. Through his writing ministry more than 250,000 copies of his articles, devotions, and tracts are distributed each month through Christian publishers. Learn more at