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Inspiring… by Recognizing Individual Potential

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My lovely wife Cindy is a teacher.  Although she has a wide range of instructional competence, she is at her best with younger children.  The age when true potential is hard to determine and eventual outcomes are hard to predict.  In this important role, at this pivotal time in the child’s development, one thing she keeps in mind and what she knows to be true is this:  That some of the children will actually become smarter than she can ever hope to be!  How ironic is this?

So what is her real role in a particular child’s development?  Is it to convey information, teach rules and expand their knowledge of how things work or where they came from?  Or, is it to… inspire?  To help the child learn how to… aspire?

When I think about leadership, the conundrum isn’t really any different.  Are our leaders best picked based on being the smartest, the wisest, the most informed?  At times, this is exactly what happens… but to me, its relevance appears to be an illusion.  A construct, that makes us feel good about our choices.

I personally would rather follow someone who can inspire; who can tap into my aspirations.  Someone who can release the potential inside of me, rather than shape me into their vision of what competence or mastery really looks like.  To do this, however, the leader must be able to recognize the potential, perhaps even latent potential, in me and recognize my desire, perhaps pent-up desire, to release it.

In a previous writing I referred to such followers as “impact players”… the ones who have the inherent drive and enough learning agility to move things forward, perhaps even in a new or different way.  I also mentioned that they are not that hard to find.

So what does it take to inspire through this “sixth sense” of recognizing individual potential?  Some ideas include:

  • Don’t assume everyone was built just like you.
  • Look for the “filters”.  Some are personality traits, but more often than not they are thinking patterns, and can be ascribed to a person’s professional development.  Engineers think differently than accountants.  Lawyers think differently than advertising executives.
  • Don’t take everything at face value.  Your instincts in this regard are much narrower than you think, even with loads of experience.
  • Focus on non-cognitive traits, like self-reliance, grit, courage, curiosity, social intelligence, etc.  They may be more predictive of potential.
  • Assume that everyone’s very best attributes may be expressed in more of a “whisper”.  If they believe these attributes make them truly “one of one”, why would they shout them out for all to hear (unless, of course, they’re someone like Donald Trump)?

I still remember my third grade teacher.  “Tommy, you have more to give”… not, “You have more to learn”.