Strong leaders are critical in formulating and communicating strategy and driving the direction and vision of an organisation. With 41% of high-growth firms finding deficiencies in leadership competencies to be an obstacle to business growth (CIPD), it’s vital that you are putting the right people into the right leadership roles and continually supporting their development.

“Leadership is an action, not a position.” – Donald McGannon

Research completed by Professor Adrian Furnham & Ian MacRae established there are 6 traits that are indicative of a person’s potential to succeed.

The 6 traits:


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.


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.


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.

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 higher risk approach have a more proactive approach to dealing with problems whereas those with lower risk approach tend to have more reactive, instinctual responses.

Ambiguity Acceptance

Ambiguity acceptance is how someone approaches uncertainty and complexity. The oversimplified solutions are often the most appealing and the least successful. Those with high ambiguity acceptance seek out more information, even when there are conflicting opinions. Leaders must have the capacity to listen to unpopular or dissenting opinions, and those with low ambiguity acceptance have little tolerance vagaries or complexity. But, good strategy cannot form without understanding of complex issues. 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.


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.

So how can you measure the potential in your organisation? Thomas International’s latest assessment, the High Potential Trait Indicator helps identify leadership potential by the above six traits and provides an insight into how suited they may be for a given job role or position, for example senior executive leadership. The assessment is easy, but by completing the test, you'll gain a comprehensive report into the individual’s potential. By understanding someone’s personality and how this interacts with a particular function or role, you can work with them to develop their strengths and areas for improvement so they reach their full potential in work to which they are well suited.

By Ian MacRae, organisational psychology consultant and co-founder of High Potential Psychology Ltd