How to Spot Emerging Leaders in Your Organization

Rob Danna

People walking quickly in a hallway

“I don’t watch your highlight films. I want to see your worst play and then I watch the next three plays after that to see how you respond.”

Brilliant advice from Matt Campbell, head coach of Iowa State Cyclones football. Campbell was sharing one of the ways he identifies emerging leaders. He knows true leaders can handle adversity and can remain calm under pressure. Campbell’s eye for talent has led to the highest win percentage for Iowa State University in 20 years and two consecutive bowl games.

The best leaders have grown up on the battle field. They’ve dealt with adversity, they’ve seen many tough situations and they approach challenges with confidence. They also know how to share, empathize and inspire. Nobody is born with these traits—they are absolutely learned skills. To identify future leaders, look for those with their chin up and an eye toward the horizon. Look for those that are preparing to go into battle. And most importantly look for those that can get along with others through respect, positivity, empathy and inspiration.

I asked my colleagues how they identify emerging leaders, here are the top five answers:

1. Emerging Leaders are Committed to Life-long Learning.

These folks are always striving to be an expert. They understand that expertise is a journey; that the title of expert is earned by you and can only be bestowed upon you. Leaders also understand the importance of mentoring and proliferating your knowledge to develop future experts and leaders. At ITA Group, our definition of expertise is very similar to the definition of an emerging leader: a team member with extensive knowledge and ability in a particular area who, through experience, practice and education, is recognized as a reliable source. Furthermore, experts must have the ability, opportunity and willingness to share their knowledge with internal (employees) and external (clients) partners. Emerging leaders are also emerging experts.

2. Emerging Leaders are Routinely Sought After.

Meritocracy is the new hierarchy. You can spot emerging leaders because they are sought out for advice on their subject knowledge. Leaders know how to use their knowledge, skills and personal characteristics to achieve exceptional results. Their leadership has been demonstrated through actions and activities over time. We use a variety of recognition tools to help identify our emerging leaders. Our data from these recognition programs (events, nominations and recognition programs) can directly identify emerging leaders—it’s crowdsourced leadership.

3. Emerging Leaders Foster a Sense of Belonging in the Workplace.

Recent research has identified this as a key to engagement. We’ve known about this for years but bad leaders and office politics have stifled progress. The science shows that personal identify benefits are critical to sense of belonging (i.e. “Can I be myself at work?” “How do I fit in?” “What does working here say about me?”). Emerging leaders do this stuff naturally. Put more simply: they send the elevator back down after they’ve reached the top. They don't let anyone sit alone in the cafeteria. They spot talent where others see non-conformity. Emerging leaders can sometimes be mistaken for rebels—but rest assure, they will be the winners. Look for emerging leaders that naturally foster a sense of belonging for team members.

4. Emerging Leaders Are a Catalyst—Not a Commander.

I’ve been following Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, ever since I read (and loved) his book, The Open Organization. His phrase (“be catalyst, not commander”) is spot on as organizations transform from command-and-control to meritocracy. True leaders have an uncanny knack for putting pieces together—making the sum greater than its parts. Jim encourages emerging leaders to be a catalyst: catalysts get the right conversations going; they spark the right kinds of collaboration.

5. Emerging Leaders Are the Total Package.

You’ve heard these kinds of folks described in sports as multi-tool player or clutch hitter or double/triple threat. Now, I’m not a fan of sports analogies for corporate work; however, I do think I’m describing the same type of person. The total package for emerging leaders includes being a self-starter, having insatiable curiosity about people and businesses, someone that listens to understand, someone that can and will roll up their sleeves and dig in. The total package also includes passion—you can hear it in their voice. Their passion is a beacon—it’s a guiding light that inspires others to follow.


Notice I did not focus on the basics of trust, respect, purpose, autonomy. If you don’t have and can’t display these traits then don’t even bother coming to work. The best leaders work tirelessly in service to those they are leading. People want to know that leadership cares about them and the role they are playing. Set goals, give feedback and be real with your team to truly foster and cultivate leadership. As a student of life, I’m sending the elevator back down to future leaders to teach, mentor and enable me.

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Rob Danna

Rob Danna

With a 25-year background in technology and sales management, Rob brings real-world performance improvement solutions to hundreds of large companies. As Vice President of Sales and Marketing at ITA Group, he prides himself by staying on the front lines of performance improvement technology and innovation.