“It is never too late to be who you might have been.” George Elliot
I love the image above because it shows the plethora of different colours and perspectives humans bring to a situation, and the potential they offer. This is particularly pertinent for me in relation to the evolving partnership that is demanded of humans and technology as we move into a world of ‘co-existence’. What will keep humans relevant, and how can we unlock our potential?
Potential is a much used (and indeed overused) term in the world of work and HR and can be interpreted very differently. It can also be defined differently by every single person. According to Merriam Webster, it is about something existing in possibility, capable of becoming actual: when a person or thing ’has potential’, we always expect something good from it in the future. As an adjective (as in ‘potential losses’, ’potential benefits’, etc.), potential usually means simply ‘possible’. In science, however, the adjective has a special meaning – ‘potential energy’ is the kind of stored energy that a boulder sitting at the top of a cliff has (the opposite of ‘kinetic energy’, which is what it has as it rolls down that cliff).
I particularly love this scientific definition, which underpins the idea that potential and energy are inextricably linked and can create a force to be reckoned with! If we put that into an organisational and leadership setting, contextual agility and energy management are key to understanding who we are as leaders and to seeing our visible and invisible potential. How many of us have spent time trying to ‘fit in’ to a definition of potential, particularly ‘high potential’? My belief is that we all have the potential to develop, grow, achieve great things and cultivate wisdom – both individually and collectively. It’s a choice and a skill we can hone. The day we accept that this is true, we are standing in our potential, but we get stuck in our own thoughts and beliefs about how it all plays out in our external systems.
I love holding a space or a mirror to unlock potential and watch people rise. I liken this process to when a toddler first realises they can walk and gets excited about the possibility of moving from one piece of furniture to another. This is a little clumsily initially but then suddenly with more dexterity and purpose as their ambition grows and they build on small successes that motivate further experiments.
Everyone possesses the power to influence society and their environment in some way. We have that untapped potential to do something special in our life and allow others to benefit from the impact and possibilities we create. This is an integral part of leadership – unlocking peoples’ potential (including your own) and watching people rise. Untapped potential is the difference between where a person is and sees themselves now and where they could be and could see themselves. We should aim to come ‘from’ the future we create for ourselves, rather than seeing it as a destination. Constantly building capacity for the future is one way to keep the brain on its toes – whether in small bouts of experimentation and curious questioning, or on a more established basis using intentional programmes. We must seek to exercise the part of our brain that isn’t stimulated by societal and organisational norms, letting the connections between the dots ‘happen’ and watching things emerge. This is where potential lies, in connecting the dots both literally and figuratively.
If we come back to one of my beliefs that relationships are the currency of systems – being ‘in relation’ to things, to our own and others’ perspectives – this is how potential can grow and express itself, even if it doesn’t lie within the ‘normal’ box or constructs. Stepping out of linear and reductionist definitions and thought processes is hard, because that’s where we spend a lot of our time as humans and as a society. This is what we are constantly asked to do in organisations as ‘high potentials’, yet this process and the anticipated outcomes are constraining the very potential we are being asked to express.
It is important that the relationship between the talent and the organisation is also intentionally and transparently mutually beneficial. Potential needs to be seen, heard and valued so that people can both recognise their peers’ potential and also feel that the level of their own skills and the importance of their own contribution to the greater good is significant for the organisation (as well as their own sense of purpose).
Carol Dweck explains that a mindset of growth requires the agility to view our capacity as expandable, and the belief that we have the potential to improve and grow through hard work, an open perspective and setting more challenging goals. This requires us to shift our mindset to create habitual discipline and practice to be developmental and question ourselves and our goals in order to constantly learn. The focus of the practices themselves helps us to dismantle and better understand our mental models and ways of operating that are no longer useful and learn skills and capabilities that are relevant to our future lives. This allows us to move from ‘doing’ our potential to ‘being’ our potential, telling ourselves a different story and rewriting our own narratives.
Dismantling our stories
We always start coaching with an understanding that our clients are whole and resourceful just as they are, and that by creating a space that is safe and non-judgmental, they can tap into their innate creativity and sense of mischief, joy and curiosity. Daily life and societal norms and expectations have sadly beaten these things out of us! We’re too busy to be creative, joyful, mischievous or … quite simply present. It is no mean feat, in an hour’s coaching session in the busyness of a day, to slow someone down enough for them to be really present in the moment and tap into their possibility bank. We must look holistically at ourselves, and nourish body, mind and spirit through growth, experimentation and exploration as well as through restorative rest and safe silence.
Brené Brown often reminds us that “maybe stories are just data with a soul”, rich in emotional data, which is one of the reasons why we connect with them. Being courageous in how we tell our stories and what information we include will define how much people connect with them and our lived experiences as the person narrating the story and bringing these different emotional data story points together. I remain fascinated by the stories people tell themselves, where they come from and how people bring together the emotional data points in the narration of their lived experience. In my work with leaders and groups, our starting point is often the leadership circle tool, which allows us not only to understand these stories and the related internal assumptions and beliefs at play, but also to disconnect and take the requisite distance to ‘notice what we notice’ about what internal assumptions might be there and how those stories have been built over time – through education, experience, life and all the other things that make every individual unique.
There are 5 ‘R’s that can categorise the learnings I take from accompanying and indeed living this process:
Refrain – from boxing yourself into your ‘known’ stories.
Reframe – how and what you think.
Regain – curiosity for noticing patterns.
Remain – comfortable with the uncomfortable to explore edges and grow.
Rest – in a restorative and intentional manner.
Understanding your potential and how you can contribute to the collective system is key to motivation and engagement. Stepping into your power really is an inside job, and is less about titles and more about contribution, but you need the right environment to be able to contribute to this greater cause. Timothy Clark tells us that the prerequisites for contributor safety and challenger safety are inclusion safety and learner safety, i.e. people feeling that they can be accepted as they are and learn and grow in the environment, without fear of reprisal or ridicule.
Times are changing, and so too is the need for different types of leadership. Linked to this is the way that talent and potential are defined in organisations today – creating more boxes that people need to ‘fit in’ to, such as existing leadership constructs and methods. Leaders need to look at the intentional role they play in creating the conditions for people to thrive, turn up as themselves and fulfill their potential or do their best work. It is also about dismantling our stories, and the stories of the systems we live and work in to create an inclusive space where courageous conversations can happen and understanding the concepts of privilege, power and allyship can become the basis of building relationships. This is where the gold mine of untapped potential lies – in the fabric of a psychologically safe environment that forms a safe collective container.
In The Big Leap, Gay Hendrick looks at how we can operate within our zone of genius – as opposed to our zone of excellence – where we are in flow, fulfilled and thriving from having impact through our own potential. We step over our happiness threshold into a space where we have dismantled our stories and self-sabotaging beliefs, into a truer, often harder and more courageous space where growth can happen and potential can unfold. Jenny Vazquez-Newsum tells us that the zone of genius is a place where untapped capacity can be found at the intersection of where we experience the world with our power and privilege, and where our marginalised identities can provide us with a powerful standpoint from which to lead. We discuss this at some length in our recent podcast (listen here).
This skill of adapting to context and emotions and standing both inside and outside of our identity(ies) is a leadership superpower, particularly in today’s interconnected world of ecosystems. One of the most challenging things about managing across ecosystems is this constant kaleidoscope of perspectives and reframing of assumptions. There is a democratisation of the players and as leaders we need to learn to build and navigate relationships across boundaries, and position ourselves in this complex system of players as opposed to in more binary landscapes. We must strive to hold different perspectives and adapt to an ever-evolving context. This continual structural tension between ‘I’ and ‘we’, between the individual and the system, also plays out in the existing talent, performance and reward process that recognises, acknowledges, and thus helps to define potential in today’s organisations.
As we step into an era that is more complex and volatile than ever, getting comfortable with diverse perspectives and curiosity is fundamental to keeping our leadership relevant and humble. If we are to solve the world’s problems sustainably, we must intentionally open up meaningful dialogue on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion and intentionally equip leaders and their teams to navigate the different layers of emotional, human and organisational complexity so as to successfully weave the rich tapestry of human potential.
Thank you for reading.
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