See the Tree, Not Just the Seedling
With people, do you often conclude that “what you see is what you get”?
It’s human nature to get frustrated with someone’s behavior and want to write the person off, especially if he or she isn’t doing the job the way you think it should be done. Such was the case for Joseph Degenhart, a Greek grammar teacher who had become furious at the behavior of one of his students—an unruly boy who had a reputation for telling jokes and cutting class. Degenhart went so far as to make the case that the child be expelled from school. He wrote a devastating note: “Nothing will ever become of you. Your mere presence here undermines the class’s respect for me.”
The student, as it turned out, was Albert Einstein.
But the story continues. Because of such poor references, Einstein barely squeaked into college. It was there, however, that he met a more senior student who saw great potential in him. The student’s name was Michelangelo Besso, and he also studied physics. It was unusual for an upperclassman like Besso to take an interest in such a junior classmate, but their friendship became the closest of Einstein’s life. Besso not only helped the struggling Einstein get a job, but they had frequent engaging discussions about science. Einstein found in Besso a true listener, a sounding board for his ideas about the universe. It was during these talks with Besso that Einstein made his great leap of discovery—the astounding idea that there must be almost unlimited energy packed within every atom of matter. That led to the discovery of atomic power and reframed how we came to think about the universe. Later Besso would remark that “Einstein the eagle took Besso the sparrow under his wing, and the sparrow flew a little higher.” Hardly anyone remembers Besso now, but without Besso’s belief in Einstein, “the eagle,” the world may have missed out on one of the greatest thinkers in human history.
When we look at a person’s potential—whether it’s a co-worker, 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 grow in their careers and relationships, 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.
I recall an incident earlier in my career where a boss saw me not only for who I was, but also for what I was capable of. I had been employed as a recruitment manager for what then was called Covey Leadership Center. It was my 35th day of employment—and while I can’t recall much of what happened on Day 34 or 36, I do remember Day 35 with great clarity. After an early morning company meeting, my boss, Pam, introduced me to one of the members of the senior leadership team. As we shook hands, she announced, “Let me tell you what Todd has accomplished during his first 35 days with us.”
I panicked and couldn’t imagine what she was about to say: I couldn’t think of one thing I’d done during the last 35 days that warranted attention from a member of the senior leadership team. Sick to my stomach, I listened as Pam continued: “Todd filled the sales position in Chicago that has been vacant for the last 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.
Now, I don’t share this story to boast about my successes. I share it because I remember that moment like it was yesterday. While I realized that I had accomplished the things Pam was describing, I was in shock that she took such an active interest in what I was doing. I remember thinking at the time, “This woman believes I can do anything!” That belief resonated in me for years to come, and I made it a priority to exceed her expectations with anything and everything she asked. Pam 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, a sibling, a teacher, or even a boss. Dr. Covey summed up his own experience with the man who started 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 Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s often-repeated maxim: “Leadership is communicating to people their worth and potential so clearly that they come to see it themselves.”
You may recall the story of my daughter, Sydney, in the first practice, and my struggles to help her complete a marathon. I have a distinct memory of the two of us going to the video store when she was a child. (If you don’t know what a video store is, imagine Netflix as a retail shop where movies are downloaded onto large spools of magnetic tape for your convenience.) Sydney was eight years old at the time, and given her hearing loss, her mother and I were the only two people who could readily understand her when she spoke. Nevertheless, my precocious little girl was determined that she was going to be the one to ask the video store clerk to find the Disney movie she had in mind. I immediately became anxious; I had no idea how this stranger would react to her inability to speak clearly, or how that might, in turn, affect my daughter. As her father, I wanted to protect her from experiencing the pain she was certain to encounter—to shield her self-esteem from any of the bruises that might result. But this little girl would not be swayed, and she approached the counter determined. She confidently announced the movie she wanted. Her speech was unclear as she pressed too many words together, lacking the normal diction one learns while growing up hearing others speak.
The confused video clerk turned his head, unable to understand her. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
I wanted to leap to her defense. It would have been easy enough to do, and would save her any further pain or embarrassment. But Sydney pressed on, repeating her words a second time. The clerk looked at me, inviting me to interpret what my daughter was asking for. But before I could jump in, my daughter grabbed hold of the counter and tried again.
“I’m so sorry, I still don’t understand,” the clerk replied. I couldn’t imagine what this felt like for this precious eight-year-old. I practically willed her to give up and turn around—I knew all it would take was one imploring look, and I could jump in and solve the situation. But she didn’t. She took a breath, and again let the words tumble from her mouth the best she could. This attempt at communication happened over and over. The clerk, to his credit, continued to try his best to understand. But each time he came up short, unable to piece together the words my daughter was attempting to say. I watched, unsure of what to do. I worried that each attempt was only going to make the final defeat more painful. My daughter, undeterred, made the seventh attempt. I wondered how long this back-and-forth could continue. But something registered in the clerk’s expression—he managed to catch hold of a word from within the sounds my daughter was making. “Mermaid…? The Little Mermaid? Is that what you’d like?” he asked.
My daughter nodded excitedly, looking triumphant as the clerk retrieved the tape. In that moment, I realized the limiting view that had crept into my perception of Sydney. She wasn’t broken, incapable, or needing to be fixed. Certainly, she had her challenges, but I had forgotten that this amazing child had lived with her disability since she was a baby. She had learned to overcome it time and time again. This was a girl who possessed the strength and potential to achieve whatever she wanted in life! My paradigm changed when I came to see my daughter as someone with much more potential than I had previously allowed. Had I stepped in to help her, even with my good intentions, it would have undermined everything she was working for. In trying to help, I might have decreased her potential, perhaps slowing her growth from a seedling into a magnificent tree. There is power in failure. Standing alone at the video store counter, Sydney had the opportunity to try and fail without someone taking over. When I held back, it sent a different message—a message that I believed in her. And even though I was paralyzed with fear, it had been a serendipitous moment because it allowed me to recognize what she was capable of.
Seeing potential in others isn’t just about hoping people will succeed. It’s believing they have unlimited talents, 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-term view, we see that failure can be a moment of instruction and reflection and can serve to increase the likelihood of success. Failure is an important and necessary function of growth and is precisely the reason I didn’t call this practice See the Tree, Not Just the Seedling Only When People Make No Mistakes and Do Everything Right the First Time.
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 fives and telling them they’re great. 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 of 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:
- 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?
Excerpt from “Get Better: 15 proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work” by Todd Davis (Copyright © 2017 by FranklinCovey Co. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster). For more information, visit http://www.getbetterbook.com.
Todd Davis is the author of “Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work.” He has been with FranklinCovey for more than 20 years and serves as chief people officer and executive vice president, responsible for global talent and development in more than 40 offices, reaching 160 countries. He has 30-plus years of experience in human resources, talent development, executive recruiting, sales, and marketing.