Sculptors carve a block of marble, a potter shapes a lump of clay, and a violinist plays their violin. It’s their medium; it’s what they use to get their work done.
Their professional journey from novice to master is best described by their refined understanding of what they can get from their medium. They know what it can do. And often more importantly, from all their mistakes over many years, they have also learnt what it cannot do.
For both leaders and professionals alike, our lumps of clay are people.
While this may not be a perfect way to describe your colleagues, it is intended as a metaphor. The basic task of a leader is to get to know their medium. They must come to understand what the medium is capable of.
They might ask how far can a person be stretched before they break? This is the question underlying the recent rise of employee wellness programs. Some might argue that a better question is how much better will people perform if wellness support is provided?
Alternatively, a leader might wonder, what might this person be able to do that they themselves don’t yet realise? This is the question at the heart of professional development programs.
New leaders must humbly begin again as they come to understand the unique medium of their new team. Similarly, professionals moving across geographies must re-learn the unfamiliar medium they will be working alongside.
For instance, a seasoned tech sales professional who had moved from selling very successfully in Southern Europe found himself suddenly struggling in Asia. His medium has changed from a client base who responded favourably to his high energy ‘get-it-done-now’ style, to one that proved less responsive and indeed was put off by that approach.
You may feel uncomfortable entertaining this idea that people be reduced to a mere medium for use by their leader. But you shouldn’t. Rather, see it as a way to foster humility in our leaders.
A potter does not scream at clay that reshapes itself after being dropped on the floor, or cracks in too much heat. Instead, they view those occasions as errors of judgment on their part. And they learn from the encounter to improve in their craft. In a similar fashion, leaders are wise to be humble and curious about their gloriously nuanced medium of people.
A master of their craft seeks to find the threshold constraints of their medium. Once determined, they then cleverly and creatively seek to show what’s possible with the medium, expanding our pre-conceived notions of what people are capable of achieving.
Leaders start by working comfortably within the medium. As they develop a more thorough understanding of the medium’s capabilities and limitations, they then gradually progress outward. They begin to grow their talent, compelling them to take on larger challenges and more demanding tasks.
Great leaders shape and facilitate their medium to reveal its full potential. They see the angel hidden within the block of marble and set it free.
This article first appeared in HR Daily on 23rd March 2016 here