From predictability to potential

There is a lot about human beings that can (and should) surprise us. Our organizational experience, modeled during the machine age with its’ high level of predictability, has led us to believe that people are predictable, too. And so this becomes the lens through which we view others: “He has an attitude problem and just cannot work on team”, or, “She is a high performer, but couldn’t possibly step up to a position in the C-suite”.

Yet there are many stories that show that, with the right attitude on the part of the leader, human predictability is a myth. Here are some of my favorites:

Homeboy Industries, created and run by “Father Greg” Boyle, a Jesuit Priest, was launched in LA as a bakery to provide an opportunity for former gang members to work beside their enemies. Homeboy is now a conglomerate of several non profit industries that provide training, counseling, and work experience to rival gang members. Gang related deaths in the area of LA where Homeboy resides have declined by 75% since the bakery opened in 1992 and the LA police believe that Homeboy played a significant role in this. Fr. Greg helps gang members who are looking for a way out to become productive members of society through the motto, “nothing stops a bullet like a job”. He’s proven this truth time and time again through his belief that gang members have the same basic needs as we all do to be a part of something good.

Marva Collins showed that children who were previously labeled “learning disabled” were actually victims of the label they were given by teachers who didn’t know how to teach to them. She famously said “Don’t try to fix the students, we must fix ourselves first. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed.” The children that Ms. Collins worked with were predicted to fail, but instead she believed in and discovered their potential. Poor students became good students and good students became great.

Boston Philharmonic conductor and the co-author of “The Art of Possibility” Benjamin Zander says that his job is to inspire the musicians he leads, and remind them why they went into music in the first place. He deals in possibility, not in predictability. He asks each student at the start of a semester to write a letter to him explaining why they deserve an “A” in his class. He expects students to rise to that level (or perhaps beyond). He encourages them, through his teaching, lectures, and demonstrations to focus on what they can contribute (instead of on their successes, failures, or how others have played the music).

In all of these stories, the intersection between the leader’s belief in the potential of others and their subsequent belief in themselves produces remarkable results. Indeed, hidden in every one of your employees (even those who aren’t on the “A” team) is potential that could be unleashed by your belief in their ability. The truth is that how we expect to see others is how they will be seen; if we expect them to be the way they’ve always been, that is the way they will be. In which case, you may be the only barrier that is keeping your followers from reaching their full potential.

Could it be that your predictions of how others will behave are actually made true by your expectations? What if your beliefs change to others’ potential instead?


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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.


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