ATD Blog

Seeing the Greatness in All

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Recent breakthroughs in the understanding of top performance and the neuroscience of learning have provided innovative approaches for developing the workforce.

Who you are and how you live—not how you execute a particular coaching technique—is the most important factor in developing others. Being an authentic transformational leader who is a role model of the best of an organization is the most efficient and effective way to develop employees.

This means that you must develop yourself before you can effectively develop others. In particular, you must find a balance between the transactional parts of your role and the transformational.  The most effective leaders role model specific behaviors:   

  • They take more time to consciously think and act from a more transformational (not just transactional) perspective.
  • They are driven by a desire to achieve a compelling purpose—some social good greater than themselves.
  • They are fanatical, self-directed learners.
  • They develop and participate in a supportive, yet demanding, social learning group.

Developing greatness

Here are a few tips for developing your greatness as a transformational leader:

  • Find a role model that exemplifies a great transformational leader and talk with them about their compelling purpose.
  • Write down your compelling purpose. Make it short, focused, and energetic.
  • Create a “path to mastery” for all of the things you need to learn to achieve your purpose.
  • Share your purpose and path to mastery with a trusted peer.

If these activities make you incredibly excited about the prospects of your job, you are ready to coach others. If not, keep working on yourself until your purpose, path to mastery, and social support group are strong.
As you become more transformational, you will embrace the perspective that everyone on your team has the potential for greatness, which is the engine of excellent personnel development.

Here are a few tips for finding the greatness in your people:

  • Ask each person: "What is the greater good that we create from our work?"
  • Have each person write a short description (about 300 characters) of their contribution to the creation of something significant for the team, their family, or their organization—something beyond themselves.
  • Have each person define a specific, highly personal “path to mastery” that can become  their on-going development plan.
  • Establish a regularly scheduled group learning time (we recommend one hour per week) when people discuss what they learned during the past week—not what they did but what they learned. This will teach them self-directed learning, which is the essence of working smarter.

Links to neuroscience

Why are purpose, self-direct learning, and social support important to performance improvement? Dan Pink’s extensive research into motivation shows that one of the most important motivating factors is having a higher purpose for your work. If you are driven by a purpose and you guide your team to develop a collective purpose, motivation soars.

Extending Pinks’ work, neuroscience research shows that focusing on purpose causes a release of brain chemicals that promote openness to new ideas and speeds the ability to learn. Writing the purpose statement down suppresses portions of the brain associated with resistance to change and stimulates portions of the brain associated with a sense of empowerment. As people become highly engaged around a purpose, they want to know more and be better—just as you are modeling a desire to know more and be better.

In our world, there is so much change and uncertainty that being a great self-directed learners is critical for anyone success. Unfortunately, most people have had so many poor learning experiences that they have lost their natural ability to be self-directed learners. By requiring people to develop their path to mastery, you are teaching people to focus their energy on becoming better learners explicitly in support of achieving the purpose.


Finally, other neuroscience shows that working as a learning group is far more effective than trying to learn alone. Creating a learning group is actually creating a culture dedicated to individual and group greatness.

What the top performing leaders and managers do not do—and this goes against most coaching and performance improvement paradigms— is follow any “coaching” methodologies that assess people's strengths in order to identify "development needs," and craft a remedial plan to "fix" the needs. The neuroscience of learning indicates that assessments and remedial coaching actually reinforce the undesirable attitudes and behaviors because they generate mental repetitions of these undesirable attributes.

Final word

The best way to develop leadership potential in people is to focus on your own positive greatness and the positive greatness in all, tie this to a written purpose about achieving a social good, and require each individual to develop and follow a practice plan that enables them to achieve the purpose. Together, these steps consistently develop positive, high-performing individuals and it is a lot more fun to learn and implement.

About the Author

William Seidman is a recognized thought leader and expert on how to develop and sustain high-performing organizations. In particular, he is renowned for understanding the processes required to discover and use expert wisdom to create extraordinary organizational performance. William holds a doctorate from Stanford University, where he spent eight years studying management decision making. As part of his doctoral dissertation, he developed a groundbreaking technique for analyzing management decision making. The technique is the core of Strategy to Action methodology and has been recognized by KMWorld, The Innovation Center, IDC, and others.

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