In these ongoing meditations on how to develop leaders, I’m struck by the need to teach leaders to see people as they really are. I don’t mean just taking stock of their strengths and weaknesses and fitting them to a certain role. And I certainly don’t mean the old Industrial Age way of seeing employees as interchangeable parts.
I cannot overemphasize the need for leaders to see the potential greatness in their own people. When you look just beneath the surface at what is latent within them—at their truly astounding untapped capabilities—you see people as they really are. Every person you work with is an acre of unseen diamonds.
Every individual contributor is capable of far greater contributions than they are allowed to make. Business leaders are too prone to put mental straitjackets on people, confining them to a role or a job description without truly envisioning what they are capable of.
Most of us don’t even realize our own potential—much less that of others. Psychologist and philosopher William James said, “Most people live in a very restricted circle of their potential being. We all have reservoirs of energy and genius to draw upon of which we do not dream.”
Vision is about more than just getting things done or achieving something. It is about discovering and expanding our view of others, affirming them, believing in them, and helping them discover and realize their own potential.
The High Potentials
In many Eastern cultures, people greet each other by placing their hands together at their chests and bowing to one another. In doing so they are saying, “I salute the greatness in you,” or “I salute the divinity within you.”
Seeing people through the lens of their high potential, rather than through the lens of their ordinariness, generates leverage. Every clear-thinking business leader understands the concept of leverage—it simply means making the most of your resources.
I often hear about how crucial it is to develop the “high potentials.” For example, former GE CEO Jack Welch says that maybe 20 percent of people have high potential and 10 percent under-perform, while the “great 70 percent” are good for keeping the machine running.
No doubt a few people will always shine, and there’s no substitute for their talent and energy. At the same time, a leader who sees the remaining 70 percent as so many interchangeable parts is like an investor who ignores 70 percent of his investments to cosset only that top 20 percent.
I have a cartoon from The New Yorker that shows an executive walking boldly through the cubicles with his chest puffed out. “Keep up the good work,” he says to a startled employee, “whoever you are, whatever it is you do.”
The fact is, every single individual is a high potential in some respect. Superb leaders know this and leverage that potential.
It Has Made All the Difference
While on a business trip years ago, I encountered a young man about 18 years old. As I talked with him, it became clear that he had some serious challenges, including drug and alcohol abuse. I could tell he was struggling with self-doubt and a lack of direction, but I also discerned potential greatness. Before we parted, I looked him right in the eye and told him that I believed he would be a person of great influence, who had unusual gifts and potential.
Almost 20 years later, he has become one of the most promising, able young men I know of. He has a beautiful family and is a professional of real accomplishment. A friend of mine who recently visited him talked with him about our meeting all those years ago. “You have no idea how that one hour impacted my life,” he said. “I was told I was someone with potential that far surpassed what I had ever imagined. That thought caught hold inside me. It has made all the difference in the world.”
The first principle to teach leaders, then, is that their people “have reservoirs of energy and genius to draw upon of which we do not dream.” As a consequence, great leaders will take the time to discover, to affirm and to communicate their belief in the unique potential of each individual on the team.
Stephen R. Covey, Ph.D., is co-founder of FranklinCovey and author of the best-selling “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” and “The 8th Habit.” Stephen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.