How should we measure leadership potential?

November 6, 2011 Simon Leadership Development

In talent management circles, the received wisdom is that leadership potential is best measured by assessing learning agility – often described as an individual’s ability to learn, adapt and change. I believe this makes a certain amount of sense as people who have these three attributes would be able to learn the skills required to lead and make the transition from being an individual contributor to becoming a leader.

Is this the right approach? And is learning agility itself enough?

Some organizations use a more arbitrary approach such as assuming that ‘high performers’ equate to ‘high potentials’ or asking line managers to suggest their high potential candidates. Both of these approaches are clearly flawed. There are plenty of case studies to show that high performers quite often don’t make the best leaders and the idea of asking line managers to select high potential people from their group without specific criteria is highly subjective – the so called ‘Halo and Horns’ effect.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a keynote presentation by Dr Mary Jacobsen of Talent Psychology Consulting at Ashridge Management College and afterwards, to spend some time with her discussing her research.

Dr Jacobsen has been researching this area for over 15 years and her conclusion is a simple one. High potential leaders are differentiated through one primary factor above all others  – intelligence. Her assertion is that high potential can be assessed by a person’s IQ score and as a subset of this their EQ or Emotional Intelligence score. So is this the future of how we should be identifying leadership potential?

I can imagine there are plenty of people in the leadership pipeline and even some in more senior leadership roles wondering if their IQ/EQ scores are high enough for them to qualify as high potential leaders. Not to mention the challenge of testing for these factors from both a practical and legal perspective.

We all know that there are some people who are born to lead and even more who are better suited to be followers. But it is a rather big leap to say if you are smart and good with people, you have the best leadership potential and if not, you are destined to be a follower, possibly never rising above the level of a junior or middle manager.

As I am writing this I am aware that I am probably sounding a little skeptical but in truth, I am extremely interested in Dr Jacobsen’s research. She has been developing a test for measuring high potential leaders based on her research findings. This test is currently being validated and due to launch towards the end of this year or early in 2012 and I for one am very interested in taking a look at this test to see whether it can help solve the dilemma – how should we measure leadership potential? 

See you at the top :)

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Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Potential,

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