Potential is not a destination. It is a strategy. In physics, potential energy is energy that is stored in an object relative to its position to something else. A boulder at the top of a hill has potential energy because of its position at the top of a hill. Once it rolls down the hill, the potential energy is lost.

As learning professionals, it is important for us to understand this concept as we develop leaders and turn their potential into results for our organizations. In the quest for turning high-potential employees into leaders who actually realize their potential, it is important to consider three things.

Potential Must Be Properly Positioned.

Potential is only noticed and exciting relative to positioning. Developing leaders was the cover story of the Harvard Business Review in November. The article talked about the measures that need to be in place, including the right metrics against which to compare a candidate. Only when candidates are positioned against metrics can we see and be excited about their potential.

While most organizations today can clearly define and communicate what high potential looks like in their emerging leaders, it is of equal importance that the high-potential, emerging leader can do the same. One client came to me because he wanted help leading his high-end retail store staff more efficiently. Like all my driven clients, he came with a clear sense of what success would look like for his store.

I caught him off guard with my next question: “And what about you? What will success look like for you? Not the you in relation to the store, but you as human being?” It took him a minute to reflect on that question. He, like most high potentials, positioned his success and identity to the project, goal or task before him. Leaders must define what the realization of their potential looks like individually. High potential is converted into high performance when the individual’s definition and the organization’s definition meet and roll in tandem down the proverbial hill at the same time.

Potential Must Die.

At some point, potential must be converted, and that’s when it dies. When an apple seed is placed in the ground, the seed must die for an apple tree to live. We understand this concept in nature but often fail to recognize and communicate it in our leadership development programs.

One leader I worked with frequently lamented about a problem employee. One day, I suggested that he thank that employee. He gave me a weird look. I explained that each problem that employee presented was a paver on the path to reaching his potential as a leader. The potential for great leadership was in that client, but that potential had to die, with the help of a problematic employee, before he became a high-performing leader.

The death of potential should be anticipated and celebrated along the leadership development journey. The potential for a new manager to become a seasoned manager dies as soon as the new manager is promoted. Holding potential indefinitely serves no one. Unconverted potential is a sign of a lack of growth.

Potential Must Be Renewed.

If potential is related to positioning, then leaders must continue to put themselves in positions to be able to reach new potential. You’ve heard the saying, “Never be the smartest in the room”; this is why. When your potential is reached in one area, the next step is to reposition yourself and discover your next potential-maximizing opportunity.

This step might be the most important in developing our 22nd-century leaders. I probably won’t be around to see the dawn of the 22nd century. My newborn nephew will be 83 when the year 2100 arrives. Will that time finally be the era of the Jetsons or all the dystopian movies of today? Who knows?

However, according to some leadership development research, what will be needed in the future is a clear way for leaders to deal with volatility, change and ambiguity. This shift from being told what to do to learning how to determine solutions for oneself will be a hallmark for future leaders. Nick Petrie from the Center of Creative Leaderships calls it vertical development.

The best way to turn high potential into high performance is with a renewed belief in self-efficacy. Decades ago, Marilyn Gist from the University of Washington suggested that self-efficacy – the belief that one is capable of performing a task – should be integrated into an organization’s behavior and HR management. Today, we can’t turn the corner without tripping over “mindfulness,” “visualization” and other practices that help builds confidence. This ability to believe that a solution is possible is what will help leaders of the 22nd century find the solutions they need.

Taken together, these three considerations emanate from having the right mind. “We must consider that traditional leadership development programs may not adequately prepare our future leaders to be successful in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business climate,” writes Kathy Sherwood, director of leadership and organizational development at InfoPro Learning. “This means we need to start looking at leadership development through a new lens.”

Albert Einstein is credited for saying, “We can’t solve problems by using the same thinking we used when we created them.” We must stop seeing potential as a destination to reach and, instead, view it as a continuous fuel to be burned on the journey toward high performance. That way, potential becomes a strategy rather than a destination.

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