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The Myth of Potential

The Myth of Potential

The Myth of Potential… Here’s the thing – we all have potential, maybe some more than others but we all have it. Potential is easy to recognize, but not so easy to realize.Most of us intrinsically recognize the gift of potential, but many simply choose to do nothing about it, and sadly, it’s the rare few who will maximize their potential. The problem with potential is society has deemed it to be a fungible commodity. People in today’s world trade on potential as if it were performance – it’s not.

Most people are fed a steady diet of potential from the moment they’re born. Parents, teachers, coaches, and eventually employers all contribute to the problem by overrating potential as a certain predictor of future performance. Potential affords no surety of outcome; it merely offers hope. While hope can clearly serve as an inspiration, it can also quite easily become a delusion. Leaders would be well advised to place less stock in potential and focus their attention on effort and outcome. We must stop looking for leaders and recognize the leadership skills of those who exhibit more than just potential. Good leaders don’t promote people hoping they’ll perform – they promote people after they perform.

Ability and aptitude are only gifts if understood and used. The cold hard truth is you’re not special because of your potential, you’re special because of your dogged pursuit of your potential, and you’re even more special when you achieve your potential. Don’t tell others how gifted you are, provide them with tangible evidence you know how to use your giftedness – show them.

The world is awash with potential. We don’t need more potential. We should not be starved for potential leaders, but we should be very, very hungry for real leaders. Leaders should recognize and acknowledge the unique potential in everyone, but avoid actions which create rewards based solely on the existence of potential. Smart leaders are much more interested in high character, high achievement, high engagement, and high performance than high potential. Reward performance not potential.

Where people get confused is potential has little to do with success. In fact, many studies have been done which show little correlation between potential and actual attained success. What the studies do show is a high correlation between work ethic, performance and success. Realizing potential takes focus, determination, and dedication – it takes work. In my experience working with some of the world’s most talented CEOs, it was/is their drive not their potential which had the greatest impact on their success. Potential absent drive will simply go to waste.

Potential is unrealized attainment – nothing more and nothing less. The key to converting potential into attainment is commitment. So my questions are these: are you committed? Are you committed to put in the energy and effort necessary to realize your potential, or will you squander your potential? It’s much easier to talk about your potential than it is to realize it, but then again, outstanding achievement has never been easy.



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    Mark Oakes

    April 18, 2012 at 8:32 am

    Mike, I’m with you 100%

    ‘Potential’ is in the eye of the beholder and that, by definition, is a flawed concept. It’s almost impossible to measure.

    What is measurable, however, is the number of cumulative hours someone has invested in ‘Deliberate Practice’ on their road to Mastery. Many authors have touched on this including Ericsson (http://bit.ly/uXA1X), Colvin and Gladwell. The decision to release potential through this process is arduous.

    Everyone has potential and talent. Leveraging it, though, is a personal decision and a commitment to invest years to develop it. Unfortunately, very, very few are willing to do this.



      Mike Myatt

      April 18, 2012 at 8:41 am

      Hi Mark:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Your reference to the 10,000 hours theory is spot-on. Without a commitment to a purposed pursuit of excellence, potential will remain just that – potential. 


    Rajeev Raghavan

    April 18, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Mike, Thanks for the great post! I am continually inspired and motivated by your words!


    Wally Bock

    April 18, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Great stuff, Mike. For my money the key is “People in today’s world trade on potential as if it were performance – it’s not.”


      Mike Myatt

      April 18, 2012 at 9:25 am

      Thanks Wally – If “potential” isn’t listed on a resume (and it shouldn’t be) as an accomplishment, then it should never be referred to as such. 


    Jesse Lyn Stoner

    April 18, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Mike. To follow your train of thinking .. the best acknowledgment to give someone is on how well they have achieved their potential, not on how great their gift is. Thinking from that perspective, changes what I focus my attention on and value. 


      Mike Myatt

      April 18, 2012 at 9:53 am

      Subtle shifts in thinking can result in monumental changes in outcomes. Thanks for sharing Jesse.


    John Baldoni

    April 18, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Agreed. It’s not what you think you are or others tell you that you are… it’s what you do. But it’s okay to take your time.. think, deliberate, choose, and act.

    Good stuff, Mike… as ever


    Ravi Janardhan

    April 19, 2012 at 3:22 am

    Another Awesome post!

    Over 99% of all are victims of the feel the potential gives. 

    Once you start differentiating perfomance from potential, you start growing.



    April 19, 2012 at 7:49 am

    Jesus told a story about talents which I think is similar. One buried one used what he was given with some success and one maximised what he had. I guess they all had potential. Action that is aligned with vision and values will travel a long way and accomplish much. Thanks for the usual bullseye reminder. 


      Mike Myatt

      April 19, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      You won’t find me arguing with Jesus:) Thanks for sharing the perfect example.


    Alan Shelton

    April 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm

    I love this subject. My take is that most folks have created in a lifetime of conditioning, concepts that from a ‘felt experience’ but may obscure mature potential. Why? Because your maturity today most likely isn’t served by early concepts. That is why there is so much happening in the space of developmental leadership. Looking inside first to remove the impediments to your own potential. Then mindfulness and deliberate practice are unfettered in their influence.


      Mike Myatt

      April 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      False truths lay the perfect foundation for blind spots. I appreciate your thoughts Alan. 


    Sean Doublet

    April 19, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    This is exactly what I needed to hear.  I am full of potential but lacking drive. Time to put my foot on the gas.


    Paul Brinkman

    April 19, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Thank you, Mike. This is such an important message. Although guilty myself, with a host of personal and professional examples, I’ll add this much to the discussion: the celebration around potential can even work to undermine performance. Discipline, patience…development…too often get lost in the siren song, the “bling,” the “next” of potential. We lose our way. The leader, of course, takes the necessary steps to draw from the well of potential in herself and in others, translating hope into faith and dreams into discipline.


    Thabo Mophiring

    April 20, 2012 at 12:00 am

    Problem – potential is unrealized not due to lack of will on the behalf but due factors society uses to undermine said potential.

    Key places where this is gender (pay gap. Glass ceiling), mirrorcracies like Silickn Vallye, which somehow entirely miss Hispanics and Blacks.

    In thee situations due tto the negative social narrative at play, potential and the hope. It engenders are important tools for overcoming prejudice and discrimination.

    Leadership is about creating contexts and environments where potential can be realized and exceeded.


      Mike Myatt

      April 20, 2012 at 7:25 am

      Hi Thabo:

      You raise some good points. That said, the issue is not an either/or scenario. Certainly not in all cases, but clearly in many cases, societal constraints can be overcome through personal drive and commitment. See the following post: http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2011/12/12/life-isnt-fair-deal-with-it 

    […] the week…so here it is.  I encourage you to click through on this post from Mike Myatt: “The Myth of Potential” to get the full essence of his message.  Here’s (more than) a few […]



    April 20, 2012 at 4:55 am

    Potential is someone else recognizing the Gift in you. Performance is when you have command of the Gift in you! 

    Learn Your Gift Today:

    […] Read More […]



    April 20, 2012 at 6:30 am

    Hi Mike 
    Good post and i guess you have tried to drive the point home and good enough we have potentials and seldom realise that we do. Are slow in discovering and working ouresleves to develop them. Potential can lie dormant and it takes a force to release it.



    April 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    I’d add that the attainment of success comes with good mentoring and feedback in your career development. You might not know all your blind spots and it’s good to have people you trust help you find them: http://wp.me/p1irwj-4j



    April 25, 2012 at 6:49 am

    Yes, sometimes we fixate on potential but the job of the leader is to be keenly aware of the potential in everyone and then to work HARD to facilitate each person’s process of realizing their unique potential. I see two problems here. The first is that leaders don’t always appreciate the potential in EVERYONE. The second is that people in leadership positions actually hinder, not develop, the potential in their people, or at best, they dont bother to tap it. So the problem is NOT that we have too much potential, but that leaders aren’t doing enough to help people achieve it.



      Mike Myatt

      April 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      I agree with your perspective, but you’re addressing a different point. You are correct in your assertion that one of a leader’s primary obligations is to help people realize their potential. However that is a far different thing from allowing people to trade solely on their potential. It is the failed leaders you point to that are the same leaders I’m admonishing. 


    Chris Witt

    May 17, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    I’ve always recommended that leaders evaluate their people based on their performance, not their attitudes or intentions. Now I have a different (and better) way of saying it: “Reward performance not potential.”

    I’ll remember that one and pass it on. Thanks



    May 21, 2012 at 6:38 am

    Great post. Particularly like: potential is unrealized attainment. So true. Thanks for the reminder!


    Alan Shelton

    May 21, 2012 at 10:31 am


    This is a topic that flusters a lot of developmental folks. Many don’t want to dismiss potential as it seems to point to a possibility. But the same commitment that produces results is the same commitment needed to pursue internal personal development. So no matter what, there is no stepping around the motivation to ‘work like a donkey’. As a developmental guy I always look for that as an element that a leader brings to the game!.



    Jaspal Rekhi

    July 10, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Hi Mike. Great insights in performance review systems and otherwise . Thank you. 

    It clarify a lot about the confusion in these system. Just a question – how does an organization inculcate the understanding of this in employee, managers and and even in their own mindsets?

    I’m sure it needs to start from the management (own) mindset and looking forward on the how part. 


      Mike Myatt

      July 13, 2012 at 10:21 am

      Great question Jaspal. This type of thinking must be driven by a top down approach. What leadership accepts sends a clear message as to what they value. If leadership demands objective performance standards replace subjective determinations of potential there can’t help but be a cultural shift in emphasis. As a result of leadership’s unyielding commitment to this principle, the workforce will shift their perception of what’s valued as well. 


    Mattison Grey

    October 11, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    I like to say, reward on performance, but coach on potential



    December 18, 2012 at 12:50 am

    great article.

    […] look at the culture, not the rhetoric – look at the results, not the commentary about potential. Despite some of the delusional perspective in the corner office, when we interview their […]

    […] Competency should represent nothing more than table stakes – it should be assumed. Having the requisite level of competency to do your job is not to be rewarded – it’s to be expected. The train is really off the tracks when being technically and/or functionally qualified to do a job makes you a high potential. […]

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