Screw potential

Yesterday we talked about the power of a label like "full of potential." We slap it on others when we believe their inherent giftedness puts them on a trajectory for greatness if...they learn to apply themselves and live up to that potential. The problem is, however, such a label makes it impossible for them to ever excel, because even their greatest successes were always expected of them. Most of the time, these potentially amazing people live with a constant shame of never measuring up to the greatness always predicted of them.

I had a number of you write in to tell me about your experience with that infamous label, including one woman whose efforts to live up to her expected potential left her in the hospital with mental illness.

Truth is, I've seen this happen a lot. Just this week, I helped a family whose 15yo son has been cutting himself to release some of the academic pressure of AP classes. I've also been coaching a supremely successful businesswoman who still feels deeply inadequate because, as she says, "with my IQ, I know I should be doing so much more." (Perhaps this helps explain the shock of so many high achievers who commit suicide--Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade this year, for instance).

This brings up a few thoughts:

1. Academic intelligence is but one measure of human capability. Emotional intelligence, we now know, is another. Social intelligence, the awareness of relational dynamics involved in a situation, is another. While these are hugely important, (and I like to think I'm helping people grow in these areas), I'm not in favor of developing standardized tests to measure EQ and SQ, however, because that could also set up yet one more expectation for those scoring highly.

2. The best way to help people develop internal goals is to believe in them, not place upon them external expectations of achievement. Does it help to outline behavioral rules, time schedules, and consequences? Of course. But the TONE of how those are presented means everything:

If we start out believing our employees, or our children, have no desire to excel, grow, obey, or self-start, then our tone is going to be one of demanding expectations, and we'll work very hard trying to motivate these folks. (Then maddeningly, these followers will start to live down to our beliefs in their inherent lack of initiative, and we feel even more desire to motivate...and the spiral continues).

If we start out projecting a belief in our people, however, our tone is one of partnership, leading them towards the goals and motivations they already possess. This means one-on-one conversations more than group pronouncements. This means smiles more than stare-downs. This means questions about their dreams more than statements about our needs for them to perform (or even worse...their needs to live up to their potential)

3. The main expectations we need to emphasize to others we lead is what they can expect from us as their leader. So many leaders I've worked with makes lists of expectations to give to their employees or kids, but this NEVER engenders the kind of self-motivation, respect for authority, or obedience they crave.

On the other hand, leaders who lay out a list of what their followers can expect from them? Well, think about it. If you received such a list from a boss, outlining their own personal commitments to you, to which you can hold them accountable, what would your response be? What if you got such a list from your parents? Something like this:

a. No matter what, I will never yell at you or use violence against you. b. I will never blame you for my decisions/reactions. c. I will follow through, in a calm, matter-of-fact way, on any promises I make, including consequences for your behavioral choices. d. I promise to not take your choices personally. I will take them seriously, but not personally. e. I will be on time, with a commitment to be both present and pleasant. f. I will ask you what you're think you're capable of, and hold you to that standard, instead of telling you what I think your potential is.

The beauty of giving such a list first is that then you can ask your people to hold you accountable to your own internal goals and standards. That, in turn, creates a culture where everyone makes such lists, and thus people are thinking about their own behavior, goals, and standards more than anyone else's.

And it eliminates all possible need for talking to others about their potential.

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