Focus on What People Can Become


One way to exhibit humility and move away from the trap of self-oriented leadership is to focus on what people can become. This requires shifting away from criticizing how staff members are doing to celebrating how far they have come in improving their performance. If this concept seems hard to grasp, just apply it to yourself and think about what motivates you to do better—a tongue lashing or a pat on the back?

Have you ever watched how parents behave while teaching their children to walk? Little Sally first pulls herself to a wobbly, standing position by grabbing a chair or table leg. The parents go crazy—all kinds of applause, yells of approval, and generous works like “Good job!” Mom and Dad do not expect darling Sal to run a this point; that would be ludicrous. But they urge her to try to walk. With such encouragement, Sally thinks she can conquer the world. She tries a tentative step and falls in a heap. Cheers and applause continue to rain down.

Now really full of confidence, the tot takes two steps before crashing. This triggers an Olympic medal-winning response. Text messages are sent to grandparents and iPhone video rolls. Over the next few weeks, Sally takes more steps and she falls down more. Her parents continue to celebrate and encourage her,

Fast-forward ten plus years. Sally is now a teenager and she wants more space; she wants to make a move of her own decisions. She’s a good kid but not perfect. She’s learning to drive and she hits the curb several times while trying to park. How do her parents respond? Annoyed. The cheerleaders are gone and they hone in only on her mistakes. Instead of celebrating her small victories as they did when she was little, they yell and criticize.

What does this mean to leaders? Plenty. Here’s the deal: You must work hard at praising progress instead of emphasizing error.

Every human has greatness inside. It’s our job to find it, develop it and praise it.

How do you celebrate how far your people have come?


2 Responses to “Focus on What People Can Become”

  1. Jim Seybert says:

    Oh yeah – you are singing my song. Play it again. So much time is wasted on our obsession with fixing broken stuff at the expense of the stuff that can make us great. Not that you should ignore the little “curb bumps” – you shouldn’t – but you will get a much higher return on your efforts when you concentrate on activities that make you feel strong.

    Marty Seligman is one of the fathers of Positive Psychology. That’s the idea that we gain more from studying what works than by looking at what doesn’t. To learn how to cook, you don’t watch someone burn toast and do the opposite. When seeking to improve your marriage, you don’t study divorced couples and do what they didn’t.

    Focus on and practice the stuff that works. Here’s a link to one of many Seligman clips on YouTube –

    • Wayne says:

      Thanks, Jim, I enjoyed the clip. I had a conversation with someone the other day about employee reviews. Most of them are backwards; pointing out what people did wrong instead of helping them grow, develop and reach something higher…

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