Spotting a budding leader

We have an annual employee development scheme at Notting Hill Housing called “Emerging Leaders”.  This year, one of the Emerging Leaders has chosen as his project the task of making this blog more successful. Mohsin Chughtai has been with Notting Hill Housing for eight years and works on marketing our Shared Ownership and Private Sales homes. I asked him to suggest some possible blog topics for me to write about and he chose “How do you spot a leader?”

I am always looking for talent – especially from non-traditional sources - and I thought this was a very interesting question so I will try to answer it here.

I would expect an emerging leader to demonstrate

  • Intellect
  • Curiosity
  • A willingness to put themselves forward
  • Self awareness and a degree of modesty
  • A keenness to listen and learn
  • Energy
  • Lack of sycophancy

Let me elaborate.


This is the number one for me. I need people who are clever, who are independent thinkers able to work things out for themselves. I have come across bright people in every workplace and I admire this ability hugely. I am not talking about being well educated, although this helps. I am talking about the great raw material from which a leader is made. If you are intelligent this is a good start. If you are not very smart then you can still do well at work but you may have to work harder.

If you have children, ensure they are fed well, stimulated, played with and encouraged. Build their self esteem and sense of worth.  Do all you can to encourage their critical thinking and value their insights.

If you manage staff, greet their ideas with enthusiasm and encourage them to think for themselves.


They need to go beyond the obvious e.g. from thinking ‘this food smells’ to considering why (Why does it smell? Should it have been in a fridge?  Does it smell odd to me because it is unfamiliar or from another culture?  Could we add a drop or two of it to improve bland food? Etc.)  In the workplace this curiosity can be best expressed in the why question, especially when applied to human behaviour. Why is the Audit team so grumpy and uncooperative? Why am I finding this such hard work? Why did we fail to win that bid? The emerging leader will ask these questions and find answers. The follower will either accept things as they are, or maybe take on face value someone else’s explanation.

A willingness to step forward

As I have said before, leading others can be a double edged sword. Leaders are not easily tolerated and a group of staff can turn on a leader if he or she makes them resentful. A leader, necessarily, takes away some of our free will and makes us dependent to a degree that we don’t always want. So stepping into a leadership role can bring all the uncomfortable feelings that leadership can inspire in the led. This is particularly poignant when you are promoted and thus have to manage people who used to be your peers and friends.

Sometimes this just means being ready to say yes when asked. A very good member of staff in my organisation has refused more than once to take a big step up. I rate her very highly and would like her to take on more responsibility. But while she always thinks it through, she always says no.

Being a leader can be fun, rewarding and satisfying. But it needs to be said that it can also be scary, unpleasant, dangerous and challenging. In my industry the number of chief executives that have been pushed out is quite high – the cost of failure can be devastating.

Courage and a willingness to lead are important. However it is not good to be over confident or too pushy!

Self awareness and a degree of modesty

There is a way of thinking which suggests that when you ask for volunteers the first to raise their hands should be automatically disregarded! The fact that they put themselves forward may imply a lack awareness of self and others. When offered an opportunity we might ask ‘Who else might be better than me? What does this job entail? Would I be any good?’ Those that rush in are often insensitive and rather too full of themselves. I wrote before about “posh” people having more confidence than people from BAME or working class backgrounds. The experience of failure, or of exclusion or poverty can be really helpful in giving a person more awareness and insight than those who have breezed through life would have had.

Keen to listen and learn

This is related to the point above, and to curiosity. If you want to take on a leadership role you can learn a lot from listening to and watching existing leaders. All of them will have something to teach you. When you come into contact with your boss or a senior leader, take a notepad and pen (old school I know but much more friendly than typing on a tablet). Give them your full attention. Ask intelligent questions.

Don’t be lazy or sycophantic

There is no easy way to the top, even if you are born with the silver spoon in your mouth. In a family firm the heir apparent still has to prove his worth to the followers. Most people who are directors have worked very hard to get there. Even if they are not your cup of tea I am pretty sure that they have talent and application. Getting to the top at work is like climbing a mountain. It can be exhilarating, but some parts of the journey are unpleasant, exhausting, scary and lonely. And it takes time. And there will be setbacks. You need to work hard. Period.

And finally, a word on trying to impress. Everyone likes a bit of positive feedback, including me! But I am suspicious if this is over the top, over-generous and laid on with a trowel. Our egos want us to believe we are unique, marvellous and completely exceptional, but we know in our hearts we got where we are mainly by graft and through the kindness and goodwill of others. If you want to give positive feedback (and this applies in the other direction too, for people you manage), make it specific e.g. ’your talk to the tenants about fire safety was pitched really well this evening. You were compassionate and understanding, but you managed to explain clearly why we cannot afford to provide new windows for all.’

What do you look for in a potential leader?  What qualities have made the most of an impression on you in other leaders you have worked with?

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.