Look beyond the obvious for leadership potential

Many times, leadership is born from very unlikely sources and from unexpected incidents. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • Circumstances for individuals to step into positions of such influence present themselves

Valley of Elah, Israel, around 1020 BC. The United Kingdom of Israel under the leadership of King Saul is at war with their archrivals, the Philistines. They have reached a dead lock in the final battle of the conflict. An Impasse. To end the stalemate the Philistines throw a challenge at the Israelites; Have any of your men come out on a ‘man on man’ combat with our selected one. The winner’s side will be declared the winner of the war and will thus have a first right to the spoils.

A soldier named Goliath is their selected one. Goliath, a scary sight, is a giant of a man who stands 9 feet 9 inches tall. Saul would have been the natural choice for Israel, himself a head taller than all the men in his army. But he is a midget next to Goliath and is reluctant to personally take on the challenge, and neither are any of his other soldiers. With no one willing to take on the challenge they are on the brink of defeat. Then the unthinkable happens. David, a young shepherd boy who happens to be on the battlefield on an errand for his older brothers who are part of Saul’s army hears about the challenge and offers to take on Goliath.

All present, not least his brothers, think him crazy, but he insists on doing so in the name of saving the face of the great Kingdom of Israel. They offer him body armour and a sword for the job, but his body is too small to don the armor, and his arms too weak to carry the sword. He steps forward towards Goliath with nothing but a sling and five stones. Goliath sneers as he cautiously approaches for the fight, as so do the rest of the Philistine army. David loads his sling and takes a carefully aimed shot, hitting Goliath on the forehead.

He drops down dead from the impact of the shot. David approaches his dead body, lifts his heavy sword from his lifeless hands and chops off his head signifying a job done. The Philistine army in shock at the sight of their fallen hero scatters in fear with the Israelites offering chase. The war is over. David is the new hero. It is said that after this incident David goes on to become one of the greatest leaders that Israel ever had.

Many times, leadership is born from very unlikely sources and from unexpected incidents. Leadership occurs from influence. An individual emerges who influences people to go in a certain direction, towards a common goal or purpose and mobilizes resources to assist them do so. Circumstances for individuals to step into positions of such influence present themselves, sometimes unexpectedly, and when they do leadership occurs.

Many times though the irony is that when such an individual shows up they go unnoticed and as such an opportunity to harness their ‘gift’ is missed. This is quite common in groups when a respected team member who is not necessarily the official team leader unconsciously influences the team in a certain direction but his or her actions are not necessarily noticed. The big challenge for leaders is how to set themselves up to notice when these incidences occur and thus reap the opportunity to develop a leader?

Potential leaders can be spotted out of the crowd by the by their style of decision making. Leadership is primarily about making decisions and influencing action against those decisions. So, by looking out for individuals who are not shy to make quick decisions in ambiguous or tumultuous times well knowing what the risks are but making plans to mitigate against them should they materialize, while at the same time showing signs that they are prepared to accept the consequences of either success or failure, you are well on your way to identifying latent leadership potential.

Furthermore, potential leaders are constantly situationally and self-aware, always scanning the environment for changes that will necessitate directional change of the decisions they have made as well as for reactions of those around them to those decisions. They also naturally yearn for success and tend to drive hard for it and are quite verbal about their abhorrence of failure, although they do experience failure often. When they do however, they recover quicky from the shock and disappointment that comes with it and use the experience gained to guide their future decisions and actions, in that sense they are quick to translate learnings in action.

Once all this has been observed though, it takes experience to know what to do next. It is said that when David stood out the way he did against Goliath, Saul, who had never known him before the incident, took him under his wings for a period of leadership apprenticeship and he very quickly became his favorite potential successor.

This however proved quite risky for David because at some point Saul started to suspect that he was plotting an untimely ‘takeover’ and reacted to the threat by trying to have him killed. I would strongly advocate against such insecurity when you take your identified apprentice under your wings. Rather prepare yourself to hand over leadership to them when the time is ripe, trusting that you have done a good job grooming them.