Finding Your Hidden Leadership Potential

Several years ago I had the privilege of teaching an MBA Leadership course at a private college where enrollment is almost exclusively female. We had one brave male in class a couple of times. Each time, he added a great dimension to our discussions because of his willingness to share his perspective and because he did invariably did it with a delightful sense of self-deprecating humor.

These men was not pushovers. When women presented them stale male stereotypes, they pushed back, challenging their limited thinking and expecting more of them.

This notion of expecting more is a hallmark of my teaching and it always got me in trouble with new students. They start grumbling Week Two. By Week Four grumbles were full-blown complaints to the program director. I’m too tough. I expect too much. My grades are too low.

Sometimes a brave soul would approach me to let me know that my approval rating was in the tank. Usually, though, the program director made the uncomfortable call to tell me of the student unrest.

I never liked to get this feedback. It made me feel bad. Upset. Embarrassed. Disappointed. When students got angry with me, I wondered why I bother.

I taught in the dead of winter in southeastern Wisconsin. When we left class at 9:00 p.m. it was dark and cold—sometimes bitter cold—and sometimes my 40-mile drive home included a battle with snow, ice, and wind. I hated it.

Safe again at home, I’d sit on the floor with one arm around my dog, a glass of wine in the other hand. My cat rubbed against my back, purring for attention. My mind was conflicted. I felt excited for these students but wondered if I saw more than what was there. Was I more invested in their success than they were?

I never stayed up late; dark thoughts spin into darker ones and lead to no place good. I’d reflect on an email my best friend sent years before, quoting William Least Heat-Moon from his novel “Blue Highways.”

“Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources.”

So I said a prayer that in time my students would understand that our work was meant to make them better and I crawled into bed.

By Week Eight, the feedback turned into amazed gratitude. They have learned so much about themselves. About capacity they didn’t know they had. About courage they hadn’t dared exercise. About the way expectations call forth their best, despite their vigorous protests against them (expectations).

We worked hard in that Leadership class. We laughed, we cried, we argued. Sometimes students said mean things, hurtful things, because their frustrations ran deep and their fear of retaliation rode the surface of every emotion. I wondered about this.

It couldn’t be just this class or the pressures of school and jobs that made them this angry and scared. Surely this was something with deeper roots?

Indeed it was. For many of these students, life had been one long series of doubt. “Who do you think you are?” “What makes you think you can do this?” “No one in this family understands what you’re doing–do you think you’re better than we are?”

These were working professionals who wanted something more from their jobs, their careers, their lives. They signed up for an advanced education that they believed would help them get it. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn’t.

My message to these students was that the answer was up to them. At first they railed against this message. They didn’t want to have to be pushed to the limits of their current knowledge only to discover that there was so much more to learn. They were already tired. And no one was giving them credit for being in school on Tuesday evenings in the dead of winter (or the balminess of summer) to advance their learning.

But when they began to realize that this was a very personal investment in uncovering their capacity, developing it, and contributing it in ways that mattered most to them, they started to focus less on what others thought and more on what they had set out to do. They embraced the idea that the outcome was truly up to them.

This was a magic moment for them. And for me. It is why I do the work I do. The gift of seeing that light in their eyes, that energy in their walk, that steadfastness of their determination is like no other. When we can touch one another with our ideas, our vision, and the force of our energy, we understand at a visceral level what is possible. And when that happens, there is no going back to the formerly well-defined and carefully protected comfort zone.

Teaching leadership always teaches me that people have more potential than they realize. Spread the word!

Categories: Education, Leadership

About Susan Marshall

founder susan marshall

Susan A. Marshall is author, speaker and founder, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future, one person or team at a time.  Through personal experience and hands-on work with executives from diverse industries at all levels, Susan has had the privilege of helping thousands of people do the difficult and exhilarating work of growth.