“The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.” – Kenneth Blanchard

You know when you’ve met one (you may have even been one!). That team member that always seems to step up, influencing change and helping people around them shine. That high achiever that lives and breathes the big picture while making it meaningful for everyone around them. They may not have a formal leadership title (yet), but there’s no doubt their peers already consider them to be one. They’re your high-potential emerging leaders – and they all have 5 distinctive traits in common.

In an age where competition for talent is fierce, business uncertainty is high and ‘quiet quitting’ is an actual thing, nurturing your emerging leaders is an absolute necessity. They’re your change-agents, with vast untapped potential and an innate ability to influence those around them. They’re not just your back-up plan, they’re your succession plan, the future of your organisation.

But if you can’t identify these emerging leaders, develop and inspire them and show them the value of being part of your business, you’ll lose them. Technological progress has opened up a whole new world of opportunities – and the next generation aren’t afraid to take a leap if they’re not getting what they want or need from their current employer. 

The 2022 Workplace Intelligence ‘Upskilling Study’ found that a whopping 74% of Millennial and Gen Z employees are likely to quit within the next year due to a lack of skills development opportunities or career mobility options. And amongst those Millennials and Gen Z’s are those emerging leaders that could help take your business to the next level.

So how do you spot these unicorns of the corporate world? While they don’t have pretty wings and horns, you can bet your bottom dollar they possess these 5 distinctive traits:

1. They’re driven by values 

Emerging leaders are very clear on what’s important to them, and what’s important to the organisation they work for.

They know what their core values are, and they intentionally use them as an anchor to guide the way they think, connect, act, make decisions and lead others. They use those values as a roadmap to help them communicate clearly, create boundaries, keep themselves motivated and create genuine relationships with their co-workers. Everything they do is a reflection of the values that are important to them, and that’s what sets them apart.

(If you haven’t yet had a go at defining your values, download my free self-paced guide. I promise it’s an exercise worth doing!)

But it’s not only their own personal values that drive these emerging leaders. They’re also crystal clear on what the company’s core values are, and how their actions and decisions align with those.

Businesses like Google, Kelloggs, Salesforce, AirBnb, Amazon and Netflix are all famous for living and breathing their values, and breeding leaders that do the same. Passionate about motivating others toward the bigger picture, emerging leaders help create a culture that others are proud to be passionate about. And with recent research finding that 72% of employees are driven by having purpose and meaning in their work, this plays a huge part in helping to retain the best talent.

2. They’re agile and adaptable

Did you know that 90% of top performers are high in emotional intelligence (EQ)? Or that EQ is four times more reliable than IQ in determining job success?

With innately high EQ, emerging leaders are able to recognise, understand and manage their own emotions. They also empathise with others, deftly navigating complex interpersonal dynamics, resolving conflicts and building strong relationships with their workmates. It’s a set of skills they’ll continue to cultivate and remain agile in over time.

Emerging leaders approach their emotions and thoughts mindfully, embracing them as a tool to help them work through challenges in a way that aligns with their values and beliefs. And they always take the time to pause and reflect on their emotions and thoughts before responding in a conversation or situation – one of the most valuable skills any leader can possess (if you’d like some help learning this skill, have a look at this fantastic tool I use with my clients).

You’ll also find that emerging leaders have a great big hat collection… and they know how to wear each and every one of them. From ‘Motivator’ to ‘Marketing’ to ‘Strategist’ to ‘Counsellor’, they know which ‘hat’ they need to have on at any moment in time, and the awareness to know when to switch them around. Their empathy, presence and adaptability also helps them know not only which mode they need to be in, but the language, attitude and manner appropriate for each ‘hat’.

3. They’re intrinsically motivated  

A fancy title doesn’t motivate everyone. Nor does power, or even money (though admittedly it can be a pretty sweet enticement!). Your biggest motivator will be completely different to someone else’s, and that’s totally ok. But in the long run, to have a fulfilling and successful career, we need to find deeper meaning in our work – we need to connect with our intrinsic motivation.

Bestselling author Dan Pink talks in detail about intrinsic motivation in his book Drive and in his TED Talk on motivation. He believes that the secret to satisfaction and high performance is our deeply human need to direct our lives (autonomy), to learn and create new things (mastery), and to do better by our world and ourselves (purpose). Science has proven that tapping into these intrinsic motivations produces much greater results than any other incentive (including cash!).

Someone who spends hours studying (mastery), or volunteers for a charity (purpose) or decides to go freelance (autonomy) – those people are intrinsically motivated, driven by what they really value in life, what’s important to them. Emerging leaders are consistently able to tap into their intrinsic motivation in a playful and unique way – it’s why other people want to work with them, and it’s the key to their high performance.

4. They communicate effectively

Words, whether written or said out loud, have immense power. Emerging leaders have great respect for that power, and they use it wisely.

They know how to minimise the disconnect between the intention of their message and the impact of their message – the perception gap. They understand that it’s not just about their words, it’s also about how they stand, their tone of voice, their body language, how they frame their conversations and how the person they’re communicating with processes and retains information.

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And emerging leaders know how to communicate in a way that genuinely resonates with their audience. It’s the reason they’re able to create authentic and fulfilling relationships, and the reason they have so much impact and influence – even without the official authority. 

5. They have a coaching approach

Emerging leaders have a classic growth mindset. They’re humble and curious, always looking for a better way to do things – ‘good enough’ just isn’t in their vocabulary. They have the self-awareness to recognise that they don’t have all the answers, and a sincere eagerness to learn from others. They recognise that they have strengths and weaknesses and are constantly looking for ways to enhance their leadership competencies and potential.

Fear of failure is commonly acknowledged as one of the greatest threats to success. But emerging leaders don’t let it derail their progress – they recognise that it’s all part of the process. As the great Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 3,000 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Ben Crowe, mindset coach to athletes including Ash Barty and Stephanie Gilmore, has this wonderful analogy he uses – if we treated failure like a scientist would – a negative result is simply a data point that helps prove or disprove a hypothesis, rather than a reflection of the scientist’s capability – then failure wouldn’t be an issue. When we choose to reframe failure as learning, failure ceases to exist. And emerging leaders love to learn!

This vital coaching approach is also extended to others. With their high emotional intelligence, emerging leaders empathise deeply with others, creating a safe space for people to express their ideas, concerns and aspirations.

Emerging leaders are open and present, and they actively listen when they’re in a conversation. They know how to provide feedback that’s clear, constructive and kind – feedback that helps others see a different perspective, empowering their journey to self-discovery and enabling them to maximise their potential. It’s a valuable skill to have, and it’s a fantastic way to create a positive and high-performing culture.

I love working with emerging leaders.

Emerging leaders are a genuine pleasure to work with. I love their openness to learn about themselves and others, their bravery to ask “Why?” when they don’t know the answer.

I’m constantly amazed by the diversity of their thinking, their fresh ideas and their clever application of technology (which has never been my forte!).

I love their unquenching thirst for knowledge and constant improvement. It’s inspiring.

I love helping them understand their multi-generational workmates a little better, applauding their ‘Aha’ moments when they apply their newfound knowledge in their workplaces.

I love that they’re far more optimistic and focused on impact and change than their more experienced counterparts (generally speaking). But I also love helping them recognise when they need to apply the brakes and get more experience or learning before they advance.

I love that their empathy extends to the planet – they want to be good and do good in the world.

And if I can help them achieve that, then it gives my job extra meaning too.

In the end, investing in the next generation of leaders really is smart business. Hiring remains an ongoing challenge, and retaining high-performing talent is the best way to build a pipeline for continued success. So take the time to identify your emerging leaders. Nurture their growth, provide them with opportunities for development and show them the value of their contributions. If, as Robin Sharma said, “Leadership is not about the size of your title, but the depth of your impact”, then your emerging leaders are already an integral part of your leadership team anyway… you just need to make sure they know it!

And if, by nurturing that talent, you secure not only the future success of your organisation, but also help empower a new generation of leaders who will shape the world for the better? Then maybe your job will do a little extra good too.

* If you think this article would resonate with an emerging leader you know, please feel free to share it with them!

If you’d like to learn how to better manage, lead and inspire your team, check out my ‘Manager to Leader Coaching Program’. It’s been designed to help you level up your leadership skills so you can build a more effective team culture, create team cohesion, drive productivity and empower your team to succeed. You can download a program brochure for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!

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I’m an experienced career coach and mentor here to help you improve your mindset, motivation and momentum. I believe everyone has the power to change their lives. It starts with taking responsibility.