The power of seeing potential in others (an ode to my Dad)

One of my earliest childhood memories was of my father kneeling down beside me, looking me in the eye and saying with such love and conviction – “You are so clever, Suzi.  You can do anything you want, and be anything you want to be.”  

I was four years old, but I still can remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday.

Suzi McAlpine at age four - The Leader's Digest

He saw the potential in me and as a consequence, I saw the potential in me.   I know with every fiber in my body if he had told me I would amount to nothing, I would not have achieved or become the person I am today (work in progress aside!).

As leaders, our influence on those around us may not be as powerful as a parent-child relationship, but it is still incredibly strong.  Our attitude to human potential and the potential of those we lead can make a monumental impact – not only to their performance (and our own as a consequence), but also to the performance and culture of our organisation.

The default attitude to those we lead must be one of seeing future potential in others…not current limitations.

An ode to my dad - thank you for realising the potential in me.

An ode to my dad – thank you for realising the potential in me. Image Source: Andrew McAlpine.

The effect of our attitudes on potential is sobering.  A number of experiments have shown that people will generally live up to the expectations we set them. In one study, a set of teachers were told a group of school children had learning difficulties. Another teaching group were told their students were exceptionally bright, a third were the control group where the teachers were told nothing.

You guessed it, those who thought they were academically above average performed better, whilst those whose teachers were told they had learning difficulties did far poorer – despite the fact that both groups had equally dispersed abilities and were subject to the same teaching curriculum!

If we judge someone by what they currently display and not what we believe they are capable of achieving, we in turn attract a continual production of the same outcomes.   It can be easy to fall into the trap of ‘fixing’ rather than facilitating change in others.

Truly believing people can change and have more potential than they may be currently demonstrating is an attitude I am trying hard to cultivate.

As the quote goes…

Beware your thoughts; they become your words.
Beware your words; they become your actions.
Beware your actions; they become your habits.
Beware your habits; they become your nature.
Beware your nature; it becomes your destiny.

This also applies to seeing potential in others. Every person has an acorn within, and with the right conditions that acorn can grow into an oak tree.

Here are my 4 top tips to encourage potential in others:

1.       Believe it can be done.  As my dad believed in me, your belief in those you lead can be a vital catalyst in their success.

2.      Motivation.  Just because someone has the makings of a great leader it does not necessarily make them so.  If they don’t want it, you are best to live with that and leave it alone.  In fact motivation (or the heart factor) is the fuel that drives change.  If they don’t value it or want it, the potential will lie dormant.

3.      Persistence.  As the adage goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.  Learning something new takes time and dedication.  Remembering to celebrate small milestones and mantras such as ‘two steps forward, one step back’ are useful.  Change does not happen overnight.

4.      Patience.  This is something we don’t tend to have much of in our modern corporate world.  The unrelenting short term focus apparent in business is not conducive to patience, but we must try and be as patient as we can within the constraints of delivering performance.

Finally, I will leave you with what I think is the most impactful example of what can happen when you see potential – not limitations.

I wonder how different Helen Keller’s life would have been if her teacher, Annie Sullivan, had not seen the potential in her.  Helen Keller, a young girl who was both blind and deaf, had an extraordinary teacher Annie Sullivan who helped her learn sign language.

Helen, who had been too much for her parents to handle due to her violent outbursts and a perceived inability to learn, was encouraged to communicate and achieve amazing heights, in terms of reaching her full potential.

Her teacher, who was also blind, saw Helen’s potential…and the rest is history. The end result is such an inspiration that the story remains relevant to this day. This is a true example of the limitless power of the brain to learn – and of what can happen when someone else sees the potential in us.  

Is there someone in your life – a mentor, teacher, parent or boss who truly believed in you and what you were capable of?

How did they make you feel?

What impact did they have on you realizing your potential?

1 Comment

  1. […] And they learned from the best man of all…my Dad. […]

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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