The Hidden Skill Great Leaders Look for in Talent

The Hidden Skill Great Leaders Look for in Talent

John Eades 12/05/2023 1
The Hidden Skill Great Leaders Look for in Talent

Technical skills can't protect soft skills.  

Technical skills are like table stakes in a poker game. You don't get a seat at the table without the fundamental skills that allow one to do their job effectively. However, technical skills on their own are incomplete. The reality is that you will never reach your professional potential with technical skills alone. 

Professionals can't achieve their potential with technical skills alone.

Unfortunately, too many young professionals ignore this advice. Instead, they rely heavily on talent or analytical skills while ignoring soft skills like communication, body language, and leadership. While each of these is essential to success, another hidden skill should be noticed. 

Advance in What You Appreciate

Nothing stays the same, so advancing in what you appreciate in team members is essential. If you have yet to consider precisely how you evaluate talent, check out a previous column. Research suggests that the best leaders and organizations evaluate talent at level 3, "interpersonal alignment." 

On a recent episode of Work Life with Adam Grant, Seattle Seahawks football coach Pete Carroll said, "We have advanced in what we appreciate in players and talent. Being competitive, as an example, is a central theme in our program, and we use it to get guys to interact, show themselves and have fun."

Carroll has always led and coached differently than most, and it's no surprise that he has advanced in what he appreciates in talent. Competitiveness is an essential trait he looks for in players, and it's something you and I should look for as well. 

Competitive to the Core

Many traits, skills, and abilities often go undetected and are essential for long-term success. There is one that many of the best leaders like Caroll look for in the evaluation process that stands above the rest. This trait is what I call, "Competitive to the Core." It's a combination of natural god-given talent and developed skill. 

Being competitive is vital in many places, professional and personal life included. You will have more success professionally if you fall in love with competing.

You will succeed professionally if you fall in love with competing. 

Competitive refers to the skill or ability to have or display a strong desire to be successful. It comes from Latin origin, meaning - to strive for. Being competitive does not necessarily imply an ability to beat others or to win at all costs, but rather your willingness and ability to be involved in competition, stay in competition, and be in relentless pursuit of excellence. 

The key here is not to fall in love with one competition but in competing. It's not just about the will to win but the choice to be competitive irrespective of the outcome. The reason for this is winning is finite, but competing is infinite.  

It's not that winning and losing aren't important; they are. Companies and careers have been built on winning big and winning often. But more often than not, in the game of business and life, you don't win, you have to keep winning. 

How to Develop Competitiveness

Since I don't know if you were born with the natural skill, today will focus on developing it. So the root of being competitive is finding something you care deeply about. 

The root of being competitive is finding something you care deeply about. 

For example, if you were playing Monopoly with a sibling as a child, the competition would be the board game, but you would be competitive because you care deeply about beating your older brother. (ok, maybe I am projecting there a little bit, but you get the point.)

To be competitive requires you to get good at finding a reason to care about what you are doing. The deeper the purpose or reason behind your action, the more likely you will persevere when it gets challenging. 

Internal vs. External Competitiveness 

It's true that a professional that "doesn't have a competitive bone in their body" can be a good team member. However, we are talking about the playmakers and the difference-makers today. The professionals that make themselves and those around them better.  

Research has found that the psychology of hypercompetitive people includes motivation primarily by external rather than internal factors. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink shared research that shows extrinsic motivation – such as competition and cash rewards – doesn't last. However, intrinsic motivation – including the drive to do well, the urge for a "job well done" and a sense of fulfillment – genuinely drives performance.

No one likes to have team members that are sore losers, making working with them painful. Proving you are right or putting others down to highlight your work is no way to bring competitiveness to the workplace. In fact, if you are only competitive to beat others, you have a lonely life coming.  

How to Identify Competitiveness in Hiring

Suppose having people who are "competitive to the core" is an essential role attribute. Here are a few powerful questions to ask them in the interview process:

  1. Tell me about a time when you had to compete. How did you approach it, and what was the outcome?

  2. How do you handle being competitive in a team environment? Tell me about a time when you helped a team compete. What did you do, and is there anything you would do again or differently?

  3. What motivates you to be competitive?


I don't know precisely what percentage of a person's competitive skills is God-given talent vs. developed. However, it's clear to me that it's a skill that leaders should prioritize, screen for, and then make a centralized theme for their team. 

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  • Salman

    Great thoughts! Concisely summarised!

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John Eades

Leadership Expert

John is the CEO of LearnLoft, author of, F.M.L. Standing Out & Being a Leader and host of the 'Follow My Lead' Podcast. He writes or has been featured on, LinkedIn Pulse,,, CNBC Money, and more. John completed his education at the University of Maryland College. 

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