Identifying Leadership Qualities When Recruiting Executive Management

We are often asked by clients how we go about identifying the leadership qualities needed to deliver the candidate who will be a successful addition to their leadership team. Recruiting executive management candidates with top leadership skills is a challenging task in part because leadership characteristics can be both innate and learned. It takes more than being a “natural born leader” to achieve operational goals within a company’s core values. It requires the person to be an example of continuous learning in order to drive innovation and higher workgroup performance within a rewarding atmosphere. 

So, how do we do it?

Seek Leadership Traits Identified by Great Philosophers

Knowing what we are seeking enables us to identify leadership traits when we see them in action. Qualities of leadership have long been the basis of works by great philosophers of both antiquity and modern times. Their writings provide thought leadership in regard to assessing attributes and skills that are intrinsic to being a great leader.

Globally popular are the writings of Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu who wrote “The Art of War” in the 5th Century BC. While not strictly a “leadership” treatise, Tzu highlights the elements of leadership that play a significant role in successful military strategizing. In more contemporary times, we could turn to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic “How to Win Friends & Influence People” or many of the books on leadership that have been published since then by other authors. Our favorite modern-day leadership thought leader, is John C. Maxwell, the best-selling author of dozens of books that examine leadership in depth.

Maxwell has identified between 20 to 25 characteristics that mark a person’s ability to effectively lead. Maxwell identified 25 “universal” leadership traits in his 1996 book “Becoming a Person of Influence.” His 2007 best-selling “The 21 Laws of Irrefutable Leadership” expands upon these traits by showing how leadership capabilities can be learned and cultivated to secure future success. According to Maxwell, if you follow the irrefutable laws of leadership, people will inevitably follow you—follow the laws and leadership traits will naturally become part of your persona.

Some Leadership Traits Readily Apparent

Effective leadership requires strong communications skills, which is among the easiest of leadership traits to assess in executive recruiting. As a form of screening for candidate potential, those who demonstrate the best written and verbal communications skills will rise to the top for further evaluation. While communication skills are not directly addressed under Maxwell’s irrefutable laws, they play a distinct role in several of them including the ones covering navigation, connection, and intuition.

Although not as easy to assess as communications, strategic thinking and complex problem-solving traits can also be identified during the executive search. When assessing these traits, we try to assess how a candidate conducts them in relation to the team. Do they delegate responsibilities, motivate other team members, meet challenges head-on, seek innovative solutions, and focus on positive developments rather than negative? Does the candidate share credit for successful initiatives, yet also acknowledge their own accountability when initiatives failed to achieve desired results?

A “yes” answer to all of these questions strongly suggests that the candidate has distinct leadership potential. Such potential is boosted when the candidate expresses strong passion for their efforts, as well as a keen desire to expand their working knowledge of their field.

Maxwell’s Ode to Humility as a Leadership Trait

Naturally, there are other leadership traits we keep an eye out for, but one that you might be surprised by is humility. Maxwell includes humility as one of the 25 traits that help make someone “become a person of influence” and humility plays a strong role in many of Maxwell’s irrefutable leadership laws.

Consider first the Law of Respect, which holds that no matter what someone’s circumstances, they can increase leadership potential. Maxwell points to such leaders as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King who came from humble circumstances yet gained cadres of high-level people under them.

The Law of Process, meanwhile, suggests that emerging leaders need to maintain humility because leadership growth occurs incrementally as a progression of ongoing work to improve leadership skills. Maxwell describes the phases of leadership as:

  • I don’t know what I don’t know
  • I know what I don’t know
  • I grow and know and it starts to show
  • I simply go because of what I know

Admitting that you don’t know something takes humility and Maxwell posits that a true leader is willing to make such admittances.

Humility also plays a role in the Law of the Inner Circle and Law of Empowerment. The first law requires understanding that great leaders don’t achieve results alone. Great leaders surround themselves with the best leaders and advisors possible and a great leader’s inner circle team helps create 80% of the successful results achieved, which suggests that the top leader is only responsible for 20%. “Empowerment” is self-explanatory, and Maxwell notes how a top manager’s failure to empower the leadership team under them can destroy a company. He suggests that leaders who lift other team members up and give them credit achieve the best results.

Maxwell is a firm believer that great leadership isn’t a dint of birth, but more a component of learning. Leadership skills can be taught and successful students demonstrate their developing executive leadership qualities by how they collaborate with others to achieve group goals.

Uplifting with Humility

Dedicated to building high-performance teams, Amtec looks for candidates who are likely to uplift the whole workgroup. Responsibility for uplifting a group is best demonstrated when applied with a touch of humility. As Dale Carnegie said in The Art of Public Speaking, “Humility is not the personal discount that we must offer in the presence of others—against this old interpretation there has been a most healthy modern reaction. True humility any man who thoroughly knows himself must feel; but it is not a humility that assumes a worm-like meekness; it is rather a strong, vibrant prayer for greater power for service.”

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