The Law of the Inner Circle

Those who are closest to me will determine the level of my success.

Good leaders realize the significance of surrounding themselves with talented people. That’s why leaders repeatedly ask me, “How can I be sure to hire the right person?”

I have never discovered a foolproof hiring practice, but I do know finding a great hire goes hand in hand with identifying potential leaders.

Over the course of this article I’ll explore eleven questions I use to spot a potential leader.

Before I begin, I’d like to give credit to my mentor and friend Fred Smith. Several of these questions were developed from my conversations with him.

1. When looking for a leader, do I see a constructive spirit of discontent?

Constructive discontent is a leader’s unscratchable itch. It’s the trait making a leader averse to average and opposed to the status quo. Potential leaders possessing constructive discontent will question existing systems and push for improvements. They perceive problems and come up with solutions.

As Kouzes and Posner say, leaders have a pioneering instinct. They are not afraid to step out into the unknown. They are willing to take risks, innovate, and experiment in order to find new and better ways to operate.

2. Do they offer practical ideas?

Highly original thinkers can have problems leading when they are unable to judge their ideas realistically. Brainstorming is not a helpful practice in leadership unless useful ideas are generated.

In the words of John Galsworthy, “Idealism increases in direct proportion to one’s distance from the problem.” Potential leaders have the rare ability to translate idealistic goals into realistic and workable actions. Leaders are not frozen when obstacles disrupt the perfect plan. They have the flexibility and fortitude to account for resistance to the ideal.

3. When they speak, who listens?

Potential leaders have a “holding court” quality about them. Their words carry weight. What they say is valuable and inspires action. When watching groups of people interact, in a matter of five minutes, I can pick the leader every time. When it comes time for the group to make a decision, all eyes focus upon the person with the greatest influence.

The extent of a person’s influence speaks volumes about their potential in leadership. Here are seven key areas to evaluate the level of influence in a possible hire:

Character Who they are.
Relationships Who they know.
Knowledge What they know.
Passion How strongly they feel.
Experience Where they’ve been.
Past Successes What they’ve done.
Ability What they can do.

4. Do others respect them?

Respect is vital for leadership, yet it can be difficult to discern in young leaders who have not fully developed. Peer respect doesn’t reveal ability, but it shows character. I’ll conclude this edition with the following acronym on respect. I have found it to be a helpful device to evaluate the respectability of emerging leaders.

Respects their coworkers and exhibits self-respect. Instead of asking for respect, they give it and earn it.
Exceeds the expectations of others. Naturally sets the bar higher than anybody else sets it for them.
Stands firm on convictions and values.
Possesses maturity well beyond their years and shows self-confidence.
Experiences a healthy family life.
Contributes to the success of others.
Thinks ahead of others. Potential leaders are marked by their ability to outpace the thinking of those around them.


Your inner circle will prop you up or pull you down as a leader. You cannot afford to place the wrong people by your side. An unethical or divisive leader can be poison to the bloodstream of an entire organization. That’s why I’m a firm believer in making a comprehensive evaluation of a potential hire. Here are questions 5-11 that I ask when choosing potential leaders:

5. Can they create or catch a vision?

I have a subset of four questions I try to answer when evaluating a potential leader’s ability to catch or cast a vision:

Are they able to become a part of someone else’s vision before they demand that others follow their vision? I watch emerging leaders to see if they can catch a vision before I determine whether or not they can create a vision. I look for potential leaders who are willing to follow before they lead. I want to see if they can serve before they empower.

Do they add value to the vision given to them? In other words, do they have the creativity to take a vision and make it better? Rather than blindly implementing the vision of another leader, potential leaders are able to improve upon the vision and make enhancements to it.

Do they show a high level of commitment to the vision? After they buy into the vision, I want to know if they will pay the price to make the dream a reality. Potential leaders are willing to take responsibility for the vision.

Are they passionate about the vision? A person can accept a vision and take steps toward its fulfillment, but I am searching for an added dimension of excitement and energy. I want a person with a contagious passion for the vision; someone with an infectious enjoyment who spreads the vision to others.

6. Do they show a willingness to take responsibility?

In my opinion, The Statue of Liberty should have a sister-statue—The Statue of Responsibility. People are quick to defend against infringements upon their freedom, but slow to take responsibility for their actions. Benjamin Franklin said, “I never knew a man that was good at making excuses who was good at anything else.” Avoid choosing employees who are unwilling to take ownership or averse to responsibility. It’s easier to go from failure to success than from excuses to success.

7. Do they finish the job?

The bookends of success are initiative and closure.

If you cannot initiate, you cannot make things happen.

If you cannot close, things that could happen never will.

Take notice of the projects you delegate to a potential leader. Do the jobs get completed 100 percent, or do they end up back at your desk demanding time and attention? The answer will tell you a lot about the leadership ability of the potential leader.

8. Are they emotionally strong?

No one can lead without being criticized or facing discouragement. A potential leader needs mental toughness. I don’t want a mean leader, but I do want a tough-minded leader who confronts reality and pays the price of success.

9. Do they possess strong people skills?

Leaders with people skills will be more enjoyable to work with, and they will get more accomplished. Be wary of hiring a potential leader without friendliness, tact, or team spirit.

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Observe whether the potential leader motivates or manipulates others. Motivation is moving people for mutual advantage, and it is a necessary leadership skill. Manipulation is moving people for personal advantage. Manipulation is always wrong and damaging to the health of teams and organizations.

Even without experience in a leadership position, potential leaders are already exerting influence in some capacity. Research their track record—both their achievements and their impact on the lives of those nearest them. If they can lead people without having a position, they’ll do very well when they get one. If they can’t lead people without a position, giving them a title will not help. The leader makes the position; the position doesn’t make the leader.

10. Will they lead others with a servant’s heart?

Servant-leaders never pursue a mission at the expense of their people. Rather, servant-leaders earn the loyalty and best efforts of their people by serving the interests and investing in the development of those they lead. A servant-leader leads to see others succeed.

Rabbi Kushner was right when he said, “The purpose of life is not to win. The purpose of life is to grow and to share. When you come to look back on all that you’ve done in life, you will get more satisfaction from the pleasure you have brought into other people’s lives than you will from the times that you outdid them and defeated them.”

11. Can they make things happen?

Some people make things happen, and others wonder what happened. Make sure a potential leader can produce.

Kansan poet Walt Mason gives expression to the value of a results-oriented producer in his poem, The Man Who Delivers the Goods.

There is a man in the world who never gets turned down,
Wherever he chances to stray.
He gets the glad hand in the populous town,
Or out where the farmers make hay;
He is greeted with pleasure on deserts of sands,
And deep in the isles of the woods;
Wherever he goes there is a welcoming hand—
He’s the man who delivers the goods.

One is too small a number to achieve greatness. To accomplish anything of significance, you must have the right people by your side. I trust these 11 questions will aid you as you pick potential leaders.

This article is used by permission from John C. Maxwell’s free monthly e-newsletter Leadership Wired available at