I spend a lot of time helping leaders with succession planning--essentially, helping them develop other leaders.
What's interesting is what happens just before the developing begins.
Truth is, leaders aren't developed from scratch. What happens instead is that someone is first recognized as a potential leader and then the development begins.
So what is it that leaders look for in those they think might have the potential for leadership? How are future leaders recognized? By a lot of things, obviously, many of them idiosyncratic to the corporate environment within which they will work.
However, when I help senior executives make this decision, one thing comes up frequently: how the leadership candidate conducts him- or herself in group situations--and specifically, how he or she contributes to group discussions.
There are three phrases in particular, variants of which I hear remarked upon time and again when they're used appropriately and wisely in group and team situations:
1. "I have nothing to add."
You know the person who simply has to contribute to every single item under discussion, irrespective of whether or not he or she has anything of note to contribute? Don't be that person.
Doing so shows only fear (that you might be outshone by someone else if you don't speak to every point) or bumptiousness (you believe you actually do know something about everything under discussion, however esoteric).
Be confident in your own potential leadership abilities to simply state you have nothing to add when, um, you have nothing to add.
2. "I don't understand what you mean by..."
Don't want to seem stupid in front of colleagues? Fearful that if you don't know the meaning of every acronym thrown around that you'll be dismissed as not "with it"? Get to the back of the succession line.
Potential leaders talk like 6-year-olds when necessary. "I've never heard that phrase in this context before--could you help me understand what you mean by it?" won't get you laughed at (unless you work with jerks, in which case, you have deeper problems). It will get you recognized as genuine and trustworthy.
3. "I recommend that we..."
There's a type of team member who will avoid making any statement that involves some risk on his or her part. Whether it's being asked to express an opinion or make a recommendation, he or she will wiggle like a trapped squirrel rather than be definite about his or her own views.
This usually comes out of a fear of being wrong (sometimes it's genuine shyness, but that's rarer than you'd think), and people who are afraid of ever being wrong don't make good leaders.
I don't suggest that you start throwing around your opinions on every matter under the sun (see Point One above), but if you want to be considered for future leadership, I do recommend you fully think through those issues in which you are involved and make your recommendations clearly and without vacillation (opinions can come later; share them if and when you're asked).
Want your leadership potential to be recognized? Try using these three phrases--or whatever version of them you're comfortable with--next time you're working in a group or team.
Download a free chapter from the author's book, "The Synergist: How to Lead Your Team to Predictable Success," which provides a comprehensive model for developing yourself or others as an exceptional, world-class leader.