How to Tell Who the Real Leader Is

I’ll admit I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years when it comes to identifying leadership ability in others. Some I’ve thought would be great weren’t – and others I didn’t give much consideration turned out to be amazing. It’d be a lot easier if there was a scientific method to show who could get the job done. Until then, we’ll have to do the best we can.

People Lineup

One of the first mistakes we often make is assuming that the person in charge is always the leader. Then, when it turns out they aren’t, we give up. But what if leadership doesn’t have anything to do with having a title? In that case, it would be possible to have an organization filled with leaders at every level.

So how can we tell who the real leaders are? Here’s a start. Real leaders do each of the following – and then some:

Take Responsibility

Great followers do what they’re told. Leaders take initiative and responsibility for solving problems. Have you ever tried to resolve a problem with someone who told you, “that’s not my job?” Contrast that with a person who went the extra mile to resolve your issue, or at least get you pointed in the right direction. Which one will you prefer to work with in the future? There’s no substitute for having defined processes, but leaders gain influence each time they take responsibility.

Have the Courage to Take Risks

One of the reasons people are so reluctant to take additional responsibility is their fear of consequences if things don’t work out. In unhealthy organizations, this is a legitimate fear. But leaders don’t take risks for just for the fun of it – they understand the differences between blind risks and acceptable risks – and they accept the responsibility to take the appropriate risks at their level. At some point, someone has to make a decision. It’s always easier to push risk up the organizational chart, but organizations tend to reward those who are willing to manage risk themselves. Leadership always requires courage.


In today’s information age, collaboration isn’t just a nice sentiment or corporate buzzword that goes in and out of vogue. It’s an organizational deal-breaker. Leaders are aware of how their part fits in the context of the larger picture – and they go out of their way to anticipate who needs the information they have. Then they work proactively to make that information available.

Develop Others

I got to work on a project with the FBI once and I will never forget what the Executive Assistant Director told us one day. She stated that the organization needed leaders who were good at… making other people look good. This flies in the face of the assumption that leadership is 100% about individual performance. A high performer who can’t develop others will soon be leading a low-performing team – and won’t be doing it for long.

True leaders don’t wait until they are in charge to develop others. They constantly look for ways to help others improve – or to make something better for everyone.

Set a Positive Example

Unfortunately, the best examples of positive behavior don’t always come from the top of the organizational chart. But people can’t help but take notice of a worthwhile example, no matter where it comes from. Leaders understand they are never too unqualified to set a good example – and that includes a good leadership example.

Create Positive Change

The whole point of leadership is change. If things were good enough the way they are, leadership would be unnecessary and irrelevant. Change is difficult to initiate and harder to sustain. There are often many barriers. But leaders don’t let what they can’t do prevent them from doing what they can do. And what they can do is enough.

It’s not easy being a leader. If it was, everyone would be doing it. But it matters – for individuals, teams and organizations as a whole. So if you are trying to figure out who the real leaders are, start looking for these factors. If you are trying to determine if someone is a leader, look for past evidence of them. And if you are trying to become a leader, this is a great place to start.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.