My son, Stephen, taught his son, Rivers, to drive our ski boat. My practice had been to let grandkids sit in my lap while driving. Stephen mutinied, put me in the brig, and made Rivers captain. Of course, the lake was uncrowded, and Stephen hovered, giving constant instructions, and we only ran aground three times. No, Rivers did great. I was very proud of both and reminded that I am now an old geezer who should have thought of this sooner.
There’s a strange interplay between respect for authority and initiative. Between two endpoints, position power in organizations is real, and one person decides the fate of another. I remember a line from a space movie starring Sean Connery whose character was relegated to sheriff a remote, unimportant mining outpost on an obscure planet. When questioned about why he took his job so seriously when the assignment meant his superiors obviously had little regard for his abilities, he replied:
“Maybe they made a mistake.”
All leaders make mistakes. Most important decisions have to do with developing and deploying talent - good choices bring blossoms, and bad choices blunt potential or promote incompetence. It is tempting to rate decisions based on productivity, but there is a hidden human cost to consider. How do my decisions make people feel? Stretched, hopeful, confident, challenged, valued? Or frustrated, discouraged, depressed, undervalued, or overwhelmed?
Simply, do our people feel engaged and committed?
What if it is true and you and I, as leaders, have overlooked or underused a diamond in the rough? What can we do to meet our stewardship responsibilities when we hold another’s potential in trust? Here are some tips:
- Have periodic, deep conversations to understand another human’s dearest aspirations and to know how they feel. Do you have empathy for his or her hopes and dreams? As MacPhee says, take time to build relationships.
- Take ownership of the process. I remember when a friend took a new job with a large company, and his mentor said if you aspire to be CEO, have the talent and will to get there—my job is to help make it happen. Do you want to lead? You own this.
- Give regular feedback: attaboys, attagirls, and constructive criticism. Trophies for showing up create a false self-image; negative complaints alone fog the path to a better future. Chart a course and co-monitor progress.
- Force yourself outside of the powerful cultural envelope. It’s way too lazy to assume because someone doesn’t fit the organizational mold or class structure. We all tend to judge a book by its cover. The human book takes a deep read. Look in all the wrong places for all the wrong people - you will be amazed at what you find and what you learn.
- Assign different people to stretch assignments. In a cyber, hyper-speed world the same-old, same-old will eventually blunt growth. The best leaders know to graciously engineer development opportunities.
- Value passion and reasoned risk-taking; expect mistakes, and treasure the teachable moments. The initiative to try new things and lead change is very valuable. Don’t crush spirit because you are fastidious.
I have noticed one of the ripest times for neglecting unmet potential is when things are going good (another enemy of great), the people machine is systematized, and everyone is too busy to build relationships and too comfortable to think outside the cultural box. That's a recipe for people mistakes.
Let us encourage each other to unleash human potential and to begin with deep conversations that build relationships.