How Inspirational Leaders Can Help People Reach Their Potential
Updated: Oct 8
I recently had the pleasure of meeting a Cadet from the United States Air Force Academy. Her cheerful disposition and upbeat attitude made me like her instantly. During the course of our discussion, she shared that when she applied to the Academy, people in her community told her, “You’ll never get in. Don’t bother applying. People like us don’t go to schools like that.”
I don’t know if the people who told her this were in positions of leadership, but I am certain she is not the only person to have an experience like this.
Instead of letting their words of discouragement bring her down, she let it fuel her fire and moved forward with her application. It wasn’t an easy road, but she proved them wrong and earned an appointment to the Academy. At the end of this spring, she will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree from one of the most competitive colleges in the country and commissioning as a Second Lieutenant into the Department of Air Force.
My hope for this future officer is that she remembers the discouraging words that fueled her fire and becomes the kind of leader who helps others achieve their dreams and goals.
I was inspired by her story and proud of her for not giving up on her dreams and goals.
You Can’t Do It
Too often I hear stories of people who are told:
“It’s really competitive, you probably won’t get it.”
“You shouldn’t do it, you’ll only be disappointed.”
“What makes you think you’re qualified? Don’t bother trying.”
Even worse is when these words are said by people in positions of leadership.
People in positions of leadership say stuff like this to subordinates for various reasons. They could be jealous of their subordinate’s success, or threatened by their subordinate’s talent. They might fear losing the subordinate to something bigger and better. Or they may think they’re doing the right thing by being a realist and managing expectations.
Insecure Leaders Versus Inspirational Leaders
Consider the following leadership approaches:
A leader who dissuades a subordinate from seeking a promotion out of fear of losing that superstar employee versus a leader who finds a way to help that subordinate get promoted even if it meant losing that superstar employee.
A leader who tells team members their innovative ideas are worthless versus a leader who encourages team members to pursue the innovative ideas to see what happens.
A leader who hammers an employee for an honest mistake without offering a second chance versus a leader who works with an employee to learn from an honest mistake.
I know I don’t need to ask you which leader you would rather be.
Inspirational leaders need develop others to reach their potential regardless of the personal impact to themselves. Insecure leaders will hold back others for selfish reasons.
How Inspirational Leaders Can Help
But how do you help someone achieve their goals while still managing expectations? It just takes some research, partnership with the person and a bit of finesse.
1. Instead of telling people they'll probably be disappointed, ask how you can help.
People who are excited to share their dreams and goals with you value your opinion. When they hear something negative from someone whose opinion they care about, it's soul-crushing, no matter how well-intentioned. Asking how you can help shows you care and that you’re interested in their dreams and goals.
2. Instead of telling people it’s really difficult, ask about their plan to success.
It’s likely they already knows it’s difficult. They doesn’t need you to point that out. But asking how they plan to achieve the dreams and goals might help you gain clarity on their intent. If there are any gaps in the plan, don’t point them out with glee. Help them figure out how to fill in those gaps. If you think the plan is unrealistic, what changes could you suggest that would make the plan more realistic?
3. Instead of telling people the chances are slim, tell them you’re proud of them for trying.
Encouragement can go a long way. Sometimes people share their dreams with others in search of validation, and discouragement can be crushing. It can make them give up before they even try. So even if they don’t achieve their dreams, applaud them for trying, see if there were any lessons learned and encourage them to keep trying.
Encourage People to Reach for their Dreams
The main character, Elizabeth, in Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus was very good at this. I don't even think she did it on purpose - it was just how she was. Elizabeth never let culturally-imposed or self-imposed limitations hold her back and didn't see why anyone else should either. There's a part in the book where she asked another character, a housewife and stay-at-home mom, what her dreams were as a young child. When this housewife admitted she wanted to be a physician, Elizabeth told her it wasn't too late. She encouraged her to take the next steps and pursue her dream, and refused to accept any of the excuses the housewife offered. Sometimes people just need someone to push them.
It’s Not Just About the Dreams and Goals
Sometimes people don’t always express their dreams and goals. Engaged leaders should make the effort to get to know their people and capabilities in order to identify their potential.
There are times when you as a leader must push their people outside of their comfort zone in order to achieve their potential. Outside of their comfort zone might mean attending a training course. Or it could be an opportunity to lead a project they were afraid to volunteer for.
Perhaps you have someone who has outgrown their current position and would be a great fit for a different position that has just come open. Even though the employee hasn’t expressed interest in the position, it would behoove you to ask the employee if they would consider applying. Saying something as simple as, “I think you would be a great fit,” can go a long way in encouraging people to see themselves the way others see them.
Just remember, be the inspirational leader that sets people up for success, whether it’s to achieve their personal dreams and goals or to fulfill their potential.
Comment below: Has a person in a position of leadership ever told you can’t do something and how did it make you feel? Have you ever told someone they couldn’t do something and how did they react?