The 6 Traits of High Potential Leaders |

Normally we look for strategic leaders who plan for the next 5 to 10 years, but there are some periods where even planning six months in advance seems difficult to impossible. 2020 has been an impossible year to plan for, however, the six core leadership traits remain important. Here, we look at how these leadership traits are especially important in times of uncertainty and change.

Leadership traits in uncertain times

Generally, a conscientiousness personality trait tends to be the the best predictor of most success and leadership potential. Typically, we might look to Conscientiousness first when we want a leader who has a strategic vision and a long term plan. Then, we might look to Curiosity to help identify the leaders that are likely to be innovators. These two traits are still important, but during times of stress and uncertainty, it's important to shift the spotlight to two other traits.

While coronavirus has been sweeping across and around the globe, the business and leadership environment has changed rapidly and significantly. No recession is ever the same, but the economic impact of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdown has certainly posed novel challenges for organisations and leadership.

We are seeing how different traits are central to leadership in 2020, with Adjustment and Ambiguity Acceptance being more important. Leaders now have to manage complex business environments where there is not a clear or simple answer to the company's challenges, leading to higher levels of uncertainty.

Leadership is an action, not a position
Donald McGannon

Even if a leader cannot provide clarity about what will be happening in 3, 6 or 12 months, they still need to communicate how the company is going to manage the current and emerging circumstances, talk about contingency planning and share information. Leaders should know that even when they cannot provide absolute certainty, they can be open about their planning process and contingency plans.

Employee stress and well-being has also come to the fore, as ambiguity is strongly linked to anxiety for many people. An ongoing challenge has been balancing both the physical and mental health of workforces, while trying to maintain the short- and long-term health as well as the sustainability of companies.

The way that leaders manage their own psychological adjustment and that of their employees is so important to weathering a crisis. That does not mean being stoic, cold or appearing unaffected. Instead, leaders need to model effective ways of talking about and mitigating stress in the workplace and should be able to talk about the challenges faced by the organisation and those within it, and healthy ways of coping.

The 6 traits of a good leader

Research completed by Professor Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae established there are 6 traits that are indicative of a person’s potential to succeed and can help you identify how personality traits affect teamwork and good leadership skills. 

While these six traits are foundational elements of potential, changing times create changing priorities for leadership, and while all the traits are important, some may rise to particular prominence at different times.

1. Conscientiousness 

Conscientiousness is someone's self-motivation and drive to achieve. High conscientiousness means strong planning, goal-directed behaviour and discipline. Strategic thinking is impossible without high conscientiousness. Low conscientiousness leaders are those whose organisations will be governed entirely by strategy.

They may be brilliant negotiators of last minute situations, of adapting to opportunities, and being decisive even when they do not know what is going on. Those with higher conscientiousness tend to be more internally motivated while those with lower conscientiousness are more motivated externally, by people or circumstances around them. 

2. Adjustment  

Adjustment is how someone reacts to stress. Being able to cope with high levels of stress is a useful trait as a leader, but is also relative to the demands of the organisation and situational factors. Greater demands, more intense pressures and hostile climates demand greater adjustment. Leaders must take responsibility and take the brunt of consequences, which requires emotional stability.

A strategist must be able to overcome their own emotional (in)stability and focus on the values and strategy of the organisation. Those with high adjustment are very resilient to stress while those with low adjustment are more affected by potential difficulties they face at work. When identifying leadership potential, the level of adjustment is one of the more important variables to measure because as the saying goes, “it’s tough at the top”. 

3. Curiosity 

Curiosity is essential for strategy; the desire to learn and explore information is foundational for the strategist. Good strategy is rooted in a rich understanding of the company, the people in it, and what is going on outside of the organisation. Continual learning informs the top-down strategy, helps to discover successful emergent strategy and to make informed decisions.

It is difficult to develop a strategic understanding of any issue or company without intellectual curiosity. Those with high curiosity like new methods and ideas, those with lower curiosity tend to stick to tried and true methods. The level of a leaders curiosity can be a real leadership style indicator; will the company be modern and always encouraging new processes or will it be more traditional with the tried and tested methods being king and creativity almost being seen as something to be afraid of. 

Personality callout IMR chart

4. Risk Approach 

Risk approach is how willing someone is to confront and solve difficult situations. The leader as a strategist must have the courage to explain why strategy is important, even in the face of opposition. They must have the fortitude to stand by and explain their own values. Those with a higher risk approach have a more proactive approach to dealing with problems whereas those with a lower risk approach tend to have more reactive, instinctual responses. 

5. Ambiguity Acceptance 

Ambiguity acceptance is how someone approaches uncertainty and complexity. Those with high ambiguity acceptance seek out more information, even when there are conflicting opinions whereas those with low ambiguity acceptance have little tolerance for complexity.

Simple, unambiguous and insincere solutions are frequently peddled by toxic leaders. Those with higher ambiguity acceptance thrive in complex environments whereas those with lower ambiguity acceptance prefer clear-cut answers and stable working environments. 

Oversimplified solutions are often the most appealing but typically the least successful. Good strategy cannot form without understanding complex issues and leaders must have the capacity to listen to unpopular or dissenting opinions.

6. Competitiveness 

Competitiveness is instrumental, but in moderation. Useful competitiveness focuses on the success of the organisation, competitive advantage of teams, departments and the company. The moderately and adaptively competitive leader can channel their desire to succeed into realistic objectives.

The hypercompetitive leader wants to be seen as the success of the organisation; whereas the uncompetitive leader may have difficulty focusing on strategic advantages and pursuing opportunities. Those with lower competitiveness take a more collaborative approach. 

If you have identified these traits in employees, you can use the measure of these six traits as part of a retention and development programme within your company, a high potential leadership development program. By using Thomas assessments, you can identify your rising stars within your organisation, and nurture them and help them to grow to their full potential, as well as get them ready for leadership positions. 

How leaders can encourage teams and organisations to thrive

  • Conscientiousness - make long term plans for the business, but don't lose sight of employee health and well-being in the short and medium term
  • Adjustment - being able to cope with stress is not the same as being immune to stress. Act as a role model and explain to others how you manage stress and difficulties.
  • Curiosity - Listen to people. A lot of good ideas will be coming from employees. In times of change you really need to have your ear to the ground and listen to what's working well and what needs to change.
  • Ambiguity - even when there are no easy solutions, it's essential to listen to the concerns of different people and groups. It's not possible to accommodate everyone, but consider different opinions.
  • Risk - Remember that when things are changing quickly, mistakes will happen. Take considered, constructive risks and explain your decision making process as widely as possible.
  • Competitiveness - Remember that people are further removed from recognition when working remotely. Make sure people are still recognised and thanked for their contributions.


Find your high potential leaders with Thomas

Thomas International's Workplace Personality assessment helps identify leadership qualities and potential by the above six traits and provides an insight into how suited they may be for a given job role or position.

If you would like to find out more about the biggest challenges facing future leaders and what skills or traits are going to become more important, you can watch our webinar; How to identify future leaders in your organisation - an expert panel.

Alternatively, speak to one of our team to find out how you can embed our solutions into your high potential and leadership programmes.