With people, do you often conclude that “what you see is what you get?”

When we look at a person’s potential — whether it’s a coworker, direct report, friend, partner or child, it requires us to see past the “seed” and envision the mighty tree it can become. Seeing potential in others is a paradigm that recognizes growth as an organic principle. It doesn’t happen overnight — it’s a function of growth over time.

After years of watching and helping others to grow in their relationships and careers, I have come to believe that people are fundamentally resourceful, capable and whole—a view that stands in stark contrast with the notion that people are broken, incapable, or needing to be fixed.

Early my career, I recall an incident which occurred where my boss truly saw me—not only for who I was, but also for who I was capable of becoming. I was hired in a role as a recruitment manager and had only been on the job for a brief period of time—35 days to be exact. I can’t remember much of what happened on day 34 or 36, but I definitely remember day 35 with great clarity. After an early morning company meeting, my boss introduced me to one of the members of the senior-leadership team I had not yet met. As we shook hands, my boss announced, “Let me tell you what Todd has accomplished during his first 35 days with us.”

I panicked, because I couldn’t imagine what she was about to say. I couldn’t think of anything I’d done during that period of time that could warrant interest from a member of the senior-leadership team. Sick to my stomach, I listened as my boss continued, “Todd filled the sales position in Chicago that has been vacant for the past six months, he’s drafted a relocation policy we’ve needed for quite some time, he’s created a recruitment strategy for the coming year . . . .”
And, the list went on.

I share this, not to boast about my successes, but because I remember that moment like it was yesterday. While I realized that I had accomplished the things my boss was describing, I remember thinking in that moment, “This women believes I can do anything.” Her belief in me resonated for years to come and I made it a priority to exceed her expectations with anything and everything she asked me to do. She truly believed in me—more than I believed in myself—and I wasn’t about to prove her wrong.

Chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of someone who recognized and believed in your potential — seeing the tree, not just the seedling. It may have come from a parent or sibling, a teacher, or even a boss. Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, shared his own experience with a man who helped him down the path that ultimately led to his life’s work: “His ability to see more in me than I saw in myself—his willingness to entrust me with responsibility that would stretch me to my potential—unlocked something in me.” This powerful experience led to Stephen’s quote: “Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it in themselves.”

Seeing potential in others isn’t just about hoping people will succeed. It’s believing that they have unlimited talents and abilities and opportunities for growth. It’s also understanding that the road to success is paved with failures — that growing is an ongoing process that may take a lifetime. When we take the long view, we see that failure can be a moment of instruction and reflection and can serve to increase the likelihood of future success. In fact, failure is an important and necessary function of growth.

Allowing ourselves to see potential in others is also not about flattery — it’s not about being the “rah-rah” person who goes around giving everyone “high 5’s” and telling them they’re great. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, seeing potential isn’t about continually correcting performance or focusing on all the risks and mistakes that stand in the way of someone’s potential. A colleague of mine once described feeling that his leader was running alongside him, constantly telling him how to ride a bike: “Don’t forget to wear a helmet, remember to look both ways, watch out for cars—you’re about to crash!” It may feel like we’re being helpful, focusing on the negative to keep others from taking a spill, but we’re not. To see the potential in others requires us to believe that the seed, with the right kind of nourishment, will become the mighty oak.

Consider the following questions regarding how you think about others and their potential:

  • Do you tend only to notice the weaknesses in others, or try to constantly encourage them to engage their strengths?
  • Do you make it a point to catch people doing good things, or tend to wait to expose them when they fail?
  • Do you encourage people to rise to new challenges, or discourage them from taking a risk?
  • Do you jump in to correct at the first sign of failure, or give people time and opportunities to show what they can do?

At the heart of these questions is the understanding that we can all have an influence on each other. I’m reminded of a quote from Albert Schweitzer that someone once shared with me, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.”

There is great power in seeing potential in others, and at the moment of contact—when one flame lights another—both people end up shining a little brighter.

When you believe in the potential of others, see the tree and not just the seedling, you help them see more clearly what they are capable of, engage their strengths and talents that may lay dormant, and ultimately become the people they want to be.