Potential: What Is It?

January 21, 2011 — Leave a comment

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From a very young age, we all want to be considered as having potential, however potential is often an overused and ambiguous word. Potential… for what? It doesn’t mean a lot by itself, so what do we mean by potential? What is it? What does it look like?  How do we define it and make it more measurable and tangible? What is potential, really? Is it a possibility…a proposed capability for becoming something more? But what?  How does a leader reach their potential if it cannot clearly be defined? Can we ever really grasp our potential? If we do and we reach it… what then?

In some ways potential is a limiting descriptor because there is really no way of knowing if we have reached our potential. Most of us know of The Peter Principle… does our potential equate only to rising to our own level of incompetence? Personally, I hope not!

Potential is a complex concept and there is little agreement about what it actually means, so we need to start by breaking it down into some key components that are generally expected of people considered to have potential:

  • Performance: the consistent capability to exceed expectations in regards to the accomplishment of specific tasks measured against preset standards of accuracy, completeness, cost, and speed.
  • Emotional Intelligence: the ability, capacity, or skill to identify, assess, and control the emotions of self, others, and groups.
  • Motivation/ Ambition: the inspiration or driving force to succeed.
  • Agility: the cognitive bandwidth to learn from past experiences, seeing things in a broader context and quickly applying observations to new situations – applying life experience, noticing patterns, and deriving general guidelines that can be applied to new situations.

While performance, emotional intelligence, and motivation are strong indicators of potential, research consistently identifies agility as a predominant gauge of potential – people with agility are the best performers because they can quickly apply what they previously learned into entirely new and different situations. Lominger has found four types of agility that are typically found in “high-potential” leaders:

  1. Mental Agility:  Most similar to IQ, it is the ability to embrace complex challenges – leaders with mental agility are generally curious and enjoy resolving multifaceted problems.
  2. People Agility:  The ability to relate well and understand others – to value people and their individual talents, consistently communicate vision and expectations, as well as accelerating at conflict management, issue resolution, negotiations, etc.
  3. Change Agility: Embodied by those who consistently challenge the status quo and constantly seek to innovate. They embrace change, drive change… and lead change.
  4. Results Agility: The ability to drive to results. It goes without saying that if a leader is high in the first three, they’d naturally have the capacity to deliver results.

The word potential by itself is vague, although it has strong connotations in most cultures. However, there is an opportunity to look underneath the covers and see that the impression of potential is predicated by performance, emotional intelligence, motivation, and agility.  We can further explore potential at a more detailed level by breaking down a core component of potential – agility – in order to help us predetermine potential and  leverage it by identifying known, tangible characteristics. If we are to truly identify and leverage potential in others  (and ourselves) it is imperative that we understand the concept and know what we are looking for  so as to maximize the desired outcomes  – enabling us all to reach our potential – both in our work and in our lives.

As a leader, how do you perceive potential and how do you leverage it in yourself and others?

Please engage the discussion and let us know how you discern your potential or potential in others. Over the next couple of  weeks, I will focus on the development of potential in Extreme LeadersTM and the value of both traditional and non-traditional methodologies in developing maximum potential. Feel free to contact me at  Sheri.Mackey@LuminosityGlobal.com or by visiting our website at www.LuminosityGlobal.com. Check back next week for the next post on Leadership Across Boundaries and Borders.


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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

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