Clients sometimes ask me what I think is the single quality that distinguishes and differentiates high-potential leaders from ordinary contributors in an organization.There isn’t really a single quality but if there is one I have seen contribute to success most often over the years, it is the ability to be forward-looking.

There’s a lot of research on leadership development and this single quality stands out. I once had a CEO tell me that his biggest complaints about his potential successors is that they didn’t think about the future and constantly confused tactics with strategy.

What do you need to develop in yourself if you want to be perceived as a high potential C-office candidate? To become a better leader or distinguish yourself as primed for promotion, you’ll want to develop your capacity to envision the future.

In the work that I do as a coach we spend time working on developing a future-focus. Some people are naturally predisposed with a future-orientation. But even if you’re not, you can still learn to expand this skill.

Focusing on the future sets leaders apart. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competency — perhaps the most important one, next to honesty.

In The Leadership Code (Harvard School of Business Press, 2009), Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood and Kate Sweetman reviewed leadership theory and distilled leadership competencies into five overarching roles:

  1. Strategist — Leaders shape the future.
  2. Executor — Leaders make things happen.
  3. Talent manager — Leaders engage today’s talent.
  4. Human capital developer — Leaders build the next generation.
  5. Personal proficiency — Leaders invest in their own development.

While leadership has evolved over time, these five areas of focus have remained constant as key functions of effective leaders, across all industries. Leaders must be able to answer the question, “Where are we going?”

We look to our leaders to envision a future, figure out where the organization must go to succeed, evaluate ideas for pragmatism and determine if they fit the company’s core mission. Leaders focus on how people, money, resources and organizational capabilities will work together to move from the present to a desired future.

To become a strategist, your thinking must be future-oriented. You’ll need to become intensely curious about trends, both inside and outside your organization’s field. You’ll need a systematic way of staying informed and tracking changes. This requires you to engage everyone in the organization and collect new ideas from various sources. Invite everyone to participate in creating a better future!