Young, High Potential Leaders – Use Wait Time to Build Character

By Michelle Malay Carter on March 25, 2009 

Be Patient, My High Potential LeaderIn terms of requisite cognitive capability, high potentials graduate from college with the ability to problem solve at work level 3 or 4.? Which loosely translates into a director or vice president type role within an organization.??I say?loosely because?we know without a collective understanding that a universal measurement system exists for work, titles are useless for benchmarking.

An Ironic Burden or an Intentional Design?
Unfortunately, generally these high potential leaders?lack the knowledge, skills, and experience to be effective in roles such as these.? It used to be that high potentials had little choice but to pay their dues as they worked their way up the ladder.? Now, they can create a website, appoint themselves president, and go, go, go.? There is nothing wrong with this; however, the percentage of flameouts (personal and/or professional)?for those who are actually successful overnight?is extremely high.

The Danger of Being a Young, High Potential Leader
A post on Epic Living got me thinking about how for a young high potential, waiting to be “tapped” into leadership can feel like being a racehorse trapped in a 10 x 10 pen.? This got me thinking about one of my favorite quotes which I think is from Edwin Louis Cole:

“A man’s talent can take him where his character cannot sustain him.”

I Wouldn’t Wish Overnight Success on Anyone
Overnight success is a seductive concept, but I am not sure humans were designed for it.? Consider, the dismal aftermath of winning the lottery for most, or for child actors, or sports celebrities.? This may be what we are seeing with our overcompensated CEOs, and our politicians who rise to the top more due to their pop star image than their?wise sage composition.

Leadership Advice I Wish Someone Would have Given Me
Overnight success might befall you, but in the meantime, if you are going to have to wait anyway, embrace the wait time as a character building experience that just might make your eventual success sustainable.? If you have to wait to earn your success, you will likely?embrace it humbly, and then use your position, power, or prestige for the benefit of humanity.?

True leaders serve.

What is the Alternative?
Your other choice is to internally grind, resent others, and create a toxic life for yourself and those around you during your wait time.? Living your life in a “just as soon as… state” means you are not living your life.

Which will you choose?? Which did you choose?

Filed Under Employee Engagement, Executive Leadership, High Potential, Personal Observation, Talent Management, Work Levels


8 Responses to “Young, High Potential Leaders – Use Wait Time to Build Character”

  1. Forrest on March 25th, 2009 12:22 pm

    You’re well-intended, but I don’t think you understand the psychic damage of never being understood. These hidden high potentials outpace us all; they have no one to talk to. It’s all well and good to tell someone who is effectively ostracized to love everyone back, but being always left out will take it’s toll. Can you imagine never having been really seen by anyone?

    I have met few hidden high potentials (M7 and above) who didn’t have character in truckloads. Otherwise they’d have suicided. If they won the lottery, they wouldn’t become failures again because they aren’t flash in the pans: they’ve been working hard. And these instances of instant success killing you are when the recipient does not have the capacity to manage the new situation. Hidden high potentials don’t have that problem.

    It’s true that there’s almost nothing that they can do. And that success, if it has not come early, will likely never come in our present society. They have to find love for people who hate them, put up with insults and condescension, suffer never having a real friend who sees them or mentors to help, and then if they do find success, they must “embrace it humbly, and then use your position, power, or prestige for the benefit of humanity.”

    Why do we expect Perfection out of them but are willing to have everyone else be imperfect humans?

    Why, if these hidden high potentials who have such developed character are so much better, do we not look for them and raise them up to lead us, but instead look for the flashy high potentials who have always known success?

    Stan’s right that it makes greater leaders. But it destroys them in the process.

    I pity anyone not “tapped” who’s M7+. Most of them do indeed wait in a “just as soon as” state, as did the ancients, waiting for a Messiah or for one to return.

  2. Michelle Malay Carter on March 25th, 2009 3:31 pm

    Hi Forrest,

    Thanks for the passionate response. A friend is someone who thinks enough of you to know you can take a good settin’ straight. Thanks for being my friend.

    I plan to feature your comment as a post tomorrow. It deserves a wider audience.



  3. Al Gorman on April 19th, 2009 7:46 pm

    One of the challenges for these individuals is they will quickly grasp an understanding with respect to skills and knowledge. The organization will have a preconceived yardstick defining how long this might take and the high potential will start feeling exactly like the race horse in the 10 X 10 pen.

    I will agree entirely with Forrest (something I rarely do) and will suggest that there will be no opportunity to build character. The individual will get bogged down in frustration and as you, Michelle, have observed so often will become a behavioral problem…one that needs a promotion but more often than not is shown the door out.

  4. Michelle Malay Carter on April 20th, 2009 8:03 pm

    Hi Al,

    Thanks for the comment. That’s two points your side, one point mine.

    In light of 100% more points on your side, I stand by my assertion that nothing is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so. If we can reframe, can we avoid getting bogged down in the frustration?


  5. Al Gorman on April 23rd, 2009 6:16 pm

    I don’t think one can reframe successfully. The frame would have been desirable until the point that one’s understanding and judgment have overtaken their optimistic naivety. Once resentment and frustration begins creeping in I think it’s impossible to reframe this disappointment into a level of character building optimism. Disappointment and frustration occur when the individual cannot distinguish measurable progress toward applying full potential capability.

    “Nothing is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so”? A very Erhardian thing to say. If I am starving and there is no prospect of me receiving nourishment that is bad whether I think it is or not. Genocide in Darfur is bad whether I think it is or not. Your assertion appears to promote that one should not apply a discretionary judgment to the situation he or she is in yet the entire notion of work is based on discretionary judgment. The negative emotions surface when, employing one’s discretionary judgment, at the level of complexity one can rationalize it in, concludes there is something wrong here and I can’t make a difference in its resolution. Is there not a contradiction here?

  6. Michelle Malay Carter on April 24th, 2009 7:47 am

    Hi Al,

    Thanks for your feedback. The quote is from Shakespeare.

    Yes, the world can stink. Life is unfair. Horrible things happen. And as my friend would say, and now what are you going to do about it?

    Our true character is not revealed when all goes well. When we are treated kindly. When things are just. It is how we choose to react in the face of injustice, unfairness, and tragedy that reveal our character.

    If our character changes based upon cirucumstances rather than a internal set of values, then we are victim to the world and all its madness. I do my best not to live there. Do I always get it right? Absolutely not.



  7. Al Gorman on April 30th, 2009 9:36 am

    Hi Michelle,
    I don’t disagree with your assertion. Certainly people should be guided by their internal values and I agree that character is best observed in the face of adversity.

    I will borrow your favorite line for a moment “there’s nothing wrong with you, there’s nothing wrong with me, let’s fix the system!”

    People’s behavior is an expression of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors; values in the intrinsic sense and environment extrinsically. Productive human behavioral norms are best established with a desirable set of intrinsic values and a functional environment. We might agree a “requisite” environment. We might further argue that environment influences values and as a consequence desirable values and behaviors are easily expressed in a functional environment and undesirable values and behaviors are readily expressed in a dysfunctional environment.

    A workplace that expects young high potential leaders to wait is neither requisite nor functional. There is something wrong with the system. I think that advocating that young high potential leaders should use wait time to build character overlooks the fundamental systemic problem and is a contradiction to your usual approach of fixing the system.

    To return to the assertion that nothing is neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, we would have to agree in light of this assertion then that systems are neither good nor bad but thinking makes them so. If we accepted this then there is really no point in attempting to alter the system, we need only enlighten people that their thinking is the problem.

    Albeit in the final assessment I suspect you and I will agree that the system is capable of inspiring certain thoughts and that when a uniform set of beliefs accumulates as a consequence of these common thoughts that an organizational culture will begin to solidify.

  8. Michelle Malay Carter on April 30th, 2009 3:44 pm

    Hi Al,

    Yes. I think we are in agreement. Yes, there appear to be contradictions in what I say.

    I’m not saying we should build a system that intentionally holds back high potentials and expects them to wait. Nor am I saying if this were discovered to be the case with a system, that it should not be rectified.

    My comments in this post were directed at those who find themselves in a situation where they have to wait, and they are not in a position to influence the system.

    Thanks for tracking with me and keeping me honest, Al.