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Leadership Q&A: Valuing Human Potential

In 1957, novelist Walker Percy wrote the following.Carolina Beach 4

Is psychiatry a biological science in which man is treated as an organism with instinctive drives and needs not utterly or qualitatively different from those of other organisms? Or is psychiatry a humanistic discipline which must take account of man as possessing a unique destiny by which he is oriented in a wholly different direction?*

As I read this I realized that leadership as a science and leading as a practice are confronted with a similar question.

Is leadership a science of management that treats human beings as parts of a structure of processes or is it a humanistic discipline that treats human beings as having a unique destiny and with it potential which is unique from person to person?

I ask this question this way because I believe that we are so immersed in a culture of science that we fail to see its limitations in providing understanding about the way many things work. Let me describe what I see.

Virtually every corporation on the planet has at one time or another engaged in the management practice of downsizing their staffing levels. The scientific, analytical rationale for doing so is virtually indisputable. For the sake of efficiencies of scale, staffing is reduced because people are the highest cost of any organization.

What this management behavior fails to assess, understand and therefore know how to act upon is the value of each individual employee. The assessment is a cost one, not a potential value one.

Think for a moment about the people in your life. Your family, your children, your neighbors, your best friends from childhood. None of those people, I suspect, are primarily measured by their cost to you.

As a father with one child in college, and another headed that way soon, I don’t measure their value to me or our family by the cost of their food, clothing, computers, cars or tuition. I measure their value by non-scientific, more humanistic measures.  For my children, one way I measure their value, so to speak, is by their potential contribution to the world. In each of them, I see talent seeking opportunity. I not only see their potential, but their mother and I invest in developing the potential that we see in their talent. Much of that development consists of mentoring them through decisions that provide the experience of discovery about their talent and their passions and interests.

Is this kind of relationship that we have with our children a parenting relationship or something else. I ask this because I can identify in virtually every person I meet, unrealized potential, waiting for the right opportunity to be fulfilled.  With each person is needed other people who see that potential and relate to them in such a way that it begins to develop and mature. This is the core of the social relationship that should be functioning in organizations.

I suspect, though, that many, many people go through their lives never having any clue as to what their real talent or potential is. They get up every morning, go to work, manage processes and tasks, go home, do various family, social and recreational activities, and repeat the same general sequence the following day.  They are not even human resources, but rather organizational functionaries. Their work is not so much a measure of potential, but rather of energy expended. Their work is measured on a cost / benefit ratio of energy use to production. As a result, efficiency is the measure of human work, not the maximization of talent.

Of course, I’m arguing a point that is not easily measured, yet we can all see as a fundamental truth about human potential. Measuring human potential is like a wager on the assessment of a person’s talent. And yet, talent is increasingly being used as a quantifier of human potential and a strategy for business success.

What would a business or organization look like if it were organized around the potential of talent?

First of all, we’d find that potential is a perception about a person rather than a definitive expectation that we can have.  It is not really a scientific measure of a person’s value to the company.  It is a quality measure of the enhanced value that a person brings.

Second, we’d realize that developing human potential is a primary function of a business.  As a result, we’d invest more in talent identification, training and development.

Third, we’d also find the structures of organizations changing to accommodate higher levels of innovation and individual leadership initiative.   One of the markers of this type of leadership environment is low barriers to leadership, innovation and contribution.

Fourth, we’d see talent development as leadership development.  Leadership from this perspective starts with individual initiative, and builds capacity for communication, collaboration and coordination that is not just functional, but strategic.

Fifth, we’d discover that individual potential has only a marginal value. Actual potential is found in the the collaborative connections between people. In other words, genuine human potential is a shared responsibility for leadership.

It is this last point which directs to the future. It means that collaboration is not the sum of its parts, but rather transforms those parts into team wholly different from the individual contributors. This is some of what we talk about when we see a high functioning team that exceeds everyone’s expectations, or when we talk about a team whose chemistry transcends the typical work relationships that we find.

This is the advantage that Ron Burt writes about in his two insightful books, Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition and Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital. In Structural Holes, he writes:

My argument is that much of competitive behavior and its results can be understood in terms of players access to “holes” in the social structure of the competitive arena. Players are connected to certain others, trusting of certain others, obligated to support certain others, dependent on exchange with certain others. Push here and someone over there moves. By dint of who is connected to whom, holes exists in the social structure of the competitive arena. The holes in social structure, or, more simply, structural holes, are disconnections … between players in the arena. Structure holes are entrepreneurial opportunities for information access, timing, referrals, and control.

In an organization where collaboration is poorly developed, team work simply a function of process, and people view their place as task masters rather than leaders, these holes exist in abundance.  A large number of structural holes show the lack of a well-developed network or relationships, the organization’s weakness as a social structure, and a competitive opportunity for individuals who practice collaboration and trust building. The organization where these holes are filled by relationships of trust, respect and mutual benefit are at a competitive advantage.  They are because they have access to a wider spectrum of information and opportunity than those whose social structure is not developed.  The strength is in the connection, and this is where talent and human potential should be developed.

For three centuries, the genius of science was the analytical process of breaking complex systems down into discrete parts to understand their function. The result was a world of self-realized individuals whose  capacity for teamwork and collaboration was not well developed.  Today, by reconnecting those parts, we make sense of a larger, more expansive, complex, dynamic world. The fulfillment of human potential within a social context is the beginning of a shift to where organizations can become genuine communities of leaders.

*from  The Coming Crisis in Psychiatry, found in Sign Posts in a Strange Land-Walker Percy, Patrick Samway,ed. Noonday/FSG, 1991.

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

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