female leader

Career Advice

6 Ways To Spot A Real Leader

Posted by Glassdoor Team

Career Advice Experts

October 20, 2014

Leadership is a strange thing. Those that are meant to have it often don't, while the most unlikely people sometimes do.

Most of us have been in situations where the real leader of a team or even a whole organisation, is not the nominal boss. Someone else is.

You'll probably recognise this scenario. While working in IT, I was in one of four teams led by individual team leaders who reported to our collective boss - let's call him Pete.

But while Pete was nominally the leader, he actually wasn't. Few took him seriously. When he asked the four team leaders to implement some new company policy they dutifully told us about it, but the collective reaction was a resigned sigh of, "It'll be forgotten about in a week" - and it usually was.


No one respected Pete. They just paid lip service to his leadership position.

The real leader was Dave, one of the four team leaders. He was flexible. If you needed to come in late he calmly sorted out cover. He came up with new ways of doing things and consulted his team as well as management before implementing them. If there was grumbling among anyone's team members, it was always Dave who represented their views to Pete.

He was also inspiring. He was keen to teach his skills to his staff and made work fun. He was no softie, though. He expected high standards of work, but everyone respected him so his team always tried their best to deliver. He was the real leader and naturally attracted followers. Everybody wanted to be on Dave's team.

Finding the Daves in your organisation matters, because leadership skills rub off on team members. Get on to their teams and you will probably work harder, get out of your comfort zone more often and face more challenges. But you will learn more about leadership, stand a bigger chance of making your mark and boost your career.

Sometimes the real leaders are obvious but if you are not in their team they may be harder to find, so here’s how to spot them and learn from them.

1. Listen to the talk at business get-togethers. Who are people talking about in a positive way? Who do they want to work for? Ask them why.

2. Find out about anyone that you think may be an authentic leader. Do they possess people skills? Real leaders do not just relay instructions from above. They engage, trust and inspire their staff and treat them with respect. Talk to their colleagues or team. Do they describe this person in enthusiastic tones?

3. Ask about the source of any new ideas or ways of doing things that have been a success. Real leaders often come up with innovations that get adopted, unlike the sometimes lame new ideas that inauthentic leaders propose.

4. Try to move into the orbit of the real leader so you can experience them at work. Observe how they deal with people and issues (not just how they do the allotted tasks of the job). This will require you to step outside of the day-to-day work processes and think carefully about the challenges the real leader faced and how they dealt with them. Later, ask them about how they did it.

5. Ask if they will be your unofficial (or maybe official) mentor and ask their advice about how you should deal with any challenges you face.

6. If they move on to a more senior job in another organisation, consider following them, but ask their advice first. No-one likes a hanger-on, but they might appreciate having someone they know in the new organisation, and may be in a position to help give you a leg-up too.

It goes without saying that this must all be done in a spirit of genuine enthusiasm. Real leaders are great readers of people and their motives - they can spot a cynical attempt at brown-nosing in a flash.