How Do You Identify and Develop the Leaders of Tomorrow?

Editor’s Note: Dr. John Sullivan has been a strategist in HR and talent management for over 30 years. His specialty is HR strategy and designing world class HR systems and tools for Fortune 200 firms. He’s never been shy about telling it like it is.

That’s why TLNT asked him to share his thinking in a video series titled “$#*!@ Dr. John Sullivan Says!” Look for these videos weekly here at TLNT.

There’s a shortage of leaders coming, according to Dr. John Sullivan, and the leaders that were developed in the last five to 10 years may not actually meet the leadership needs that today’s market and business environment demands. “So the question comes up,”  he says, “how will we develop leaders differently than in the past?”

4 things to look for in potential leaders

The process of developing a leader, he says, is going to change dramatically. So when you look for high potential employees who are prospective leaders, here are the things to look for:

  • Leadership style — The new leader uses influence instead of power, so you need to look at their work habits and see how they get people to do things. “Do they convince them, persuade them, or force them?”
  • Ability to adapt — Look for people who can manage under ambiguity and complexity. “The world is changing constantly … and there is going to be a lot of ambiguity. There are people who love that, and those are probably going to be your leaders of the future.”
  • People who succeed — Some people simply have the ability to succeed no matter what situation you put them in. Those are the kind of people who are the best leaders.
  • Ability to make others better — Who can look at the current workforce and help others to be more productive? Good leaders make other people better, too.

Manager recommendations still work, but …

Dr. John also talks about the six ways that organizations use to find future leaders. These include things like projects and rotations, simulations and scenarios, and having them make presentations to larger groups.

Having current managers follow the standard approach (one that still works, he notes) and recommend potential leaders is still something many companies do, but there can be a lot of bias in who people recommend. An alternative, Dr. John suggests, is to let people self-nominate and then give them some smaller projects to see how they do in a tightly managed leadership role.

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Yes, the world of training and development is changing rapidly, he points out, and this spills over into how we develop the leaders and managers of tomorrow.

“The world of learning has changed dramatically, (and) the world of getting information has changed dramatically,” he says. New leaders are being developed faster and better, “and the end result is someone who is agile, who can learn rapidly, lead others, and produce great results.”


John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.