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Nine Ways to Identify Natural Leaders

by Gary Hamel on June 27, 2011


gary-hamel's picture

Nine Ways to Identify Natural Leaders

The need to empower natural leaders isn’t an HR pipedream, it’s a competitive imperative. But before you can empower them, you have to find them.

In most companies, the formal hierarchy is a matter of public record—it’s easy to discover who’s in charge of what. By contrast, natural leaders don’t appear on any organization chart. To hunt them down, you need to know . . .

Whose advice is sought most often on any particular topic? Who responds most promptly to requests from peers? Whose responses are judged most helpful? Who is most likely to reach across organizational boundaries to aid a colleague? Whose opinions are most valued, internally and externally? Who gets the most kudos from customers? Who’s the most densely connected to other employees? Who’s generating the most buzz outside the company? Who consistently demonstrates real thought leadership? Who seems truly critical to key decisions?

A lot of the data you need to answer these questions is lurking in the weeds of your company’s email system, or can be found on the Web. Nevertheless, it will take some creative effort and software tweaks to ferret it out.

A few suggestions . . .

1. Establish a directory of key words corresponding to critical skills and competencies within your company, and then see who generates or receives the most emails on any particular topic.

2. Add a small box at the end of every incoming email that lets the recipient grade the sender’s response: was it timely, was it helpful?

3. Analyze internal email flows to see which folks are most likely to respond positively to emails from colleagues in other divisions—who’s collaborating across unit boundaries?

4. Create a system for ranking the frequency and value of each employee’s contributions to internal wikis or communities of practice.

5. Encourage employees to write internal blogs, and to rank posts and comments.

6. Using key words, analyze company emails to see who’s had the most to say about important corporate decisions, and to see how widely those views have been disseminated and discussed.

7. Identify emails relating to key projects and then identify the individuals who were the most critical “nodes” in the project team—the folks who seemed to be in the middle of every email exchange.

8. Review incoming emails from customers to determine who’s getting the most requests for help, who’s been most responsive and who’s receiving the most praise. Or, give customers the ability to immediately score the email responses they get from company personnel.

9. Use Google Alert and news tracking to find out which employees are getting quoted most often online, and who’s showing up most often in the press.

There are other types of data that might also be useful—but you get the idea.

Sure, there are some practical challenges in collecting and analyzing this sorts of data. But ultimately, it should be possible for a company to create a multivariate leadership score for every employee.

Obviously, the old top-down hierarchy isn’t going to disappear any time soon. What would happen, though, if every employee had the chance to compete for leadership “points,” whether or not they had a management job? What would happen if everyone’s leadership score showed up in their online profile—so everyone knew how their colleagues ranked on expertise, helpfulness, collaboration and thought leadership? What would happen if anyone could attach a public comment to a colleague’s leadership score? What about including highly rated “natural” leaders in every important decision meeting? And finally, what would happen if leadership points were considered in compensation and promotion decisions? I’m not sure, but I bet it would do more good than harm.

One thing’s certain, though: we can’t invent Management 2.0 without inventing some new ways for people to accumulate and exercise authority. In the tempestuous seas of today’s creative economy, top-down leadership structures are fast becoming a liability. We need is a new currency of power—one based not on titles, but on every individual’s capacity to lead, every day. We need fewer zero-sum battles for plum positions, in which Machiavellian maneuvering wins the day, and more positive-sum competition to increase one’s personal leadership score—by delivering real value to colleagues and customers. We need a system that forces titled leaders to justify their positional power by competing in an open market for leadership esteem. And finally, we need organizations that aren’t built around a single, dominant hierarchy, but are comprised of many soft hierarchies, each corresponding to a critical skill or issue.

A few years back, two of my colleagues at the London Business School posed a cheeky question in the title of their leadership book: “Why,” they wondered, “should anyone be led by you?” If you reflect on this question every morning, your leadership score is bound to go up.

So, readers, here are some questions to ponder: How would you find the natural leaders in your company? And once found, how would you help them expand their influence? Can you imagine other alternatives to traditional power structures? If so, what might they be?

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david-norman's picture

These are wonderful nine ways to identify a natural leader. You work out the best and write the facts always. But my opinion is you don't need these things at all to identify. No need to judge a natural leader. You automatically get to know that. Working procedures are different from each other. So their unique working procedure will reflect in the results of each project the natural leader is working on.

ph's picture
given that you are one of the few management thinkers and practicitioners who both intuitively and pragmatically get that there is a difference between structures and processes as well as how fundamentally detrimental the principal-agent hierarchy is, I do wonder why you almost sound defeatist when you write that, "Obviously, the old top-down hierarchy isn’t going to disappear any time soon." Suggesting these nine steps is not a bad idea, but I believe you know as well as I that this leaves the encompassing structure (i.e. the p-a hierarchy) with its multi-faceted impact intact and directly targets processes. In other words, this is at its a core - like so many other suggestions - a second-best approach.

The notion to Get Rid of the Hierarchy has been with me for more than decade - and only in recent years did I find a way to explain why this intuition is correct (see: So to answer your questions:
a) You don't find natural leaders, they automatically emerge and can only do so in a hierarchy-free, non-trivially self-organizing network or lattice template;
b) Yes, I can imgaine an alternative organizational blueprint - read Hamel (2007, ch. 5) or go to
c) The core of the alternative blueprint is rooted in nature's organizational precedent of non-trivial self-organization where complex multi-agent systems self-organize in a fully decentralized, hierarchy-free fashion. It also entails to change and extend the fundamental assumptions about the human condition: we are evolutionary-anthropologically cooperative, collaborative, and altruistically help, and we are intrinsically creative as well as motivated to be productive. This applies to all types of agents in any given organizational context with both for-profit and non-profit goals.

saip-eren-yilmaz's picture
Starting this discussion without a clear definition of natural leaders is a pithy.
Natural leaders somehow take leadership roles, if not leadership positions. They assert themselves in many open and sublte ways as leaders and they exercise influence beyond their official boundaries. Since it is their nature, they do this in a very comfortable and effective way.
However, staying away from daily activities of other functions and organizational dynamics, HR cannot witness these influential people on the go. Especially in big organizations, HR, unless given efficient tools, is unable to scout for talent. And when given efficient tools such as Mr. Hamel explained, some form of blindspots are inevitable due to reasons Mr. Zivaljevic explored.
For many reasons, organizations must spot these folks but I have different reasons in mind.
Contrary to made-leaders, natural leaders are driven by hardwired instincts which can sometimes turn out to be harmful for organization. They are adept at internal politics and power games. Worse is that these folks can be deprived of the skills required to set the right vision and direction while they have a pretty strong toolbox to influence and drive others.  From my perspective of natural leaders, it is questionable to assume them, by default, as good candidates for higher leadership positions.
In my opinion, natural leaders get themselves introduced to HR, if they require this for their progress. HR should not worry about how to identify them.
Also, I infer that the way Mr. Hamel proposes, seems to be designed to identify opinion leaders who are actually a different type. They are good at shaping thoughts, but the question is that whether or not they are equally capable at driving people?
aleksandar-zivaljevic's picture

I am finding it difficult to start writing my comment on this article. Firstly, because the article is written by the author whose work I respect (although not always agree with), secondly because there are so many articles on the MIX that follow the same ... Hmm, now I am having issues to find the right word: pattern - no; logic - probably not; philosophy - too big; concept – maybe. I hope this becomes clear further in this comment.  

It is very common that authors featured on the MIX website (and throughout the literature) discuss matters related to managing employees (issues, solutions, improvements, characteristics...) without defining the type of employee they write about. I believe that the type of employee article or theory applies to should be clearly defined within the text. I am sure that all will agree that many aspects of reality surrounding different types of employees differ. As this writing is only a comment, not a full article, I will mention one aspect only, tools accessible to employees. Mr. Hamel suggests that the use of information collected from emails exchanged by the employees can help management define natural leaders within the organisation. Road workers mostly have no access to emails; neither the majority of workers in the factory, nor people building that new high-rise. I don’t like using term white-collar, but that is probably the type of worker Mr. Hamel refers to.

Now look at the other articles on MIX website. Many (if not all) articles refer to the same group of employees, but no article particularly states that. There are two issues here. The first one is the fact that we are not disclosing that our solutions, suggestions for improvements or new approaches outlined in our articles do not lead to betterment (presumably, better management practices should result in betterment of managed employees) of blue collar workers. The second one is the issue of why we avoid focusing on this segment of employees.

The answer to the first issue might be only us not having enough courage to admit this. Or, we might be acting hypocritically hiding that we prefer dealing with white collar workers only. Or something else. Or, I might be completely wrong and all this applies to blue collar workers as well and it is just me being not able to recognize that. Please point me to the right direction if you think that is the case.

The question of why we avoid (or not discuss at all) management issues surrounding management of blue collar works can potentially be answered by one or all of the following:

  • Tools we like using in our solutions/suggestions are not used by majority of blue collar workers. I am referring to emails, blogs and other communication methods. Not many factory line workers have access to computer at work (some at homes as well - let’s face the reality).
  • We are completely detached from those workers and we leave dealing with them to the first level of managers above them. We keep our hands clean...
  • We are used to deal with mindset of white collar workers. Other mindsets are too different to what we are and to what we are used and trained to deal with (at least my MBA education has not addressed that through any of the papers).
  • White collar workers have higher power distance and are easier to manage.
  • Respected literature does not address management of blue collar workers clearly, or it puts focus on white collars only and we follow the same pattern (I know there will be some examples here, I have issues finding sound names to cite). Take Herzberg as an example here. His solution to workplace motivation is to allow employees to self-actualize through work. Can someone explain how one does that with factory line workers? I remember, back in communist Yugoslavia, that was possible, but for a short period of time only. Not to mention consequences that happened when self-actualized employees realized that money is a very important necessity and started requesting more money instead of self-actualization as a reward.
  • ...

The list is not complete. Please enlarge the list with your opinions.

I will stop here, but will be happy to discuss this further if interest shown.

oded-israeli's picture
Spying on emloyees' emails always seem wrong to me. 'we've been monitoring how many people have asked for your help and how quickly you respond to them, and we'd like to include you in our natural leaders program!' Hmmmm, no. I'm really not flattered or motivated. 360 or other peer surveys might be a better approach than the suggested ones.
neelesh-marik's picture
What does conscious leadership look like in action?
bala-subramanian's picture
Your start your article with the premise:  "The need to empower natural leaders isn’t an HR pipedream, it’s a competitive imperative. But before you can empower them, you have to find them."  - There is a still better way. I have described it in this paper :   Empowering The People and Societies ( )  which was presented at the 98th Indian Science Congress held from Jan 3rd-7th, 2011 at the SRM University Campus in Chennai, India.
We need to empower people fromthe the outset. The 9 steps you have described can produce the results you are anticipating, only if all are empowered and have been available for access to their peers, communities and societies in general.
Am I making any sense or  is that not correct?