South-Western - Management  
High Potential, High Risk: Traits That Indicate High Leadership Potential Can Also Derail a Career
Topic Leadership
Key Words High potential leaders, leadership traits
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News Story

Most managers know that a talent shortage is looming. To prepare, most companies have some kind of high-potential program in place for their talented leaders. These programs are important, but often not well-executed.

High potential leaders are a truly valuable group to any company. Most organizations are differentiated by the talent that they have. The companies with the best talent will be the most competitive. The benefits of developing high potentials are great for employees as well as organizations. Leaders who are recognized and singled out for development feel valued and motivated to stay engaged and productive.

Many managers have a hard time identifying their high potentials. What criteria should be used? Intelligence? Performance? Desire to succeed? The most common mistake is to confuse high performance with high potential. High potentials need the right motivation and drive, the ability to work well with others, an interest in financial data, intelligence, and comfort with power.

Ironically, some of the qualities that qualify someone as a high potential can also signal potential performance problems. In a recent study by Personnel Decisions International, 27 percent of individuals identified as being high potentials were also identified as having a high risk of career derailment.

The most common profile for a high-potential leader likely to derail is someone smart, driven, and accustomed to barreling through to achieve the results that he or she wants. This type of leader is likely to experience problems with colleagues. Without learning to show respect for others and gaining their commitment, they cannot lead successfully.

Managers need to be aware that high potentials are often rewarded for their results, not necessarily how they get them. So, the person who is great at building teams to get results gets the same reward as the person who alienates everyone and does the work himself. Yet, one is building better leadership skills for the long term.

To help high potentials reach leadership ranks, managers need to mentor and coach them and help them to develop a personal plan to develop their skills. There are four steps managers should take:

  1. ccurately identify high potentials in your department
  2. Provide clear expectations in terms of valued behaviors
  3. Provide individuals with specific feedback on how well their performances and their behaviors meet expectations
  4. Make sure rewards such as promotions and bonuses don’t send mixed messages. Reward high potentials for both the results and the methods used to attain the results.


The author of this article describes some high potentials that like to isolate themselves to get work done, and how that type of person can derail when he or she is promoted and needs to interact with others. Using the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, analyze the personality type this employee is exhibiting. As this person’s mentor, what advice could you give to help him or her succeed as a leader? In your opinion, is it possible for a person with this personality type to be a successful leader? Be prepared to discuss your thoughts in class.


Describe why many high potential leaders are also at risk for career derailment.


If you are a manager of a high potential employee, what steps can you take to make sure that you are maximizing the potential of that person for the organization?

Source “High Potential, High Risk: Traits That Indicate High Leadership Potential Can Also Derail a Career,” HR Magazine, March, 2008 v53 i3 p85(3).
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