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June 23, 2019

“High-Potential” vs “Great”

By Vega Subramaniam

As I was reading a blog post recently by Scott Eblin, titled, “How to Have Your Best Week,” I was struck by something. In one paragraph, he writes, “All of the great leaders set and enforce personal boundaries.” And in the next paragraph, he writes, “I regularly work with groups of high potential leaders who are on the road to running flat out until they crash.” (Emphasis mine.)

That juxtaposition–“high-potential” immediately after “great”–got me to wondering: what differentiates “great” from “high-potential”? I’m not talking about setting boundaries, necessarily. To be clear, Scott Eblin doesn’t offer evidence that all great leaders have boundaries; he just makes the claim. I don’t know what research he’s drawing upon or how he’s defining “great” or whether it’s really true that great leaders don’t burn out.

There are resources out there that try to define characteristics of great leadership. Here’s one that’s frequently cited. I’m not here to add to that conversation, necessarily.

Bird trapped in the mire.

I’m more interested in understanding: what keeps so many of us in the quicksand of “high-potential” when we could be “great”? What are the various ways we do or do not bridge the gap between “high-potential” and “greatness”?

When I think about my own “high potential,” and what keeps me from “greatness,” I think about the things that come out of my mouth about what I wish would happen, if only I’d find the time, the will, the discipline.

If only I could get myself on a more regimented reading schedule. If only I made it to more networking events. If only I’d stick to my plan of reserving one day of every week to devote to my creative projects.

It’s not just reaching those ambitious professional heights that count as “greatness,” either. It’s also those (seemingly) little things that make up our best lives, right?

One of the things that is true about my professional life right now is that I can work from anywhere. So I have these exquisite notions of hopping on the metro, going wherever it takes me, and spending the day working from a café in an unexplored neighborhood of DC or Hyattsville or Alexandria. Or even more luxurious, I think, “I should hop into my car and drive somewhere in Maryland to work for a day, a wildlife refuge maybe, or a charming small town.” But do I? No. No, I do not. Why not? Because in this regard, I am currently mired in “if only.”

So it seems to me that the “high-potential” aspects of our lives flounder in the realm of “if only.” And the “great” aspects of our lives hum along in the realm of “I’m crushing it.”

What would it take for me to achieve “crushing it”?

Taking a step back, what makes up that gap between “if only” and “crushing it”? Is it a chasm? A bridge? Do you leap across, once you’ve gained enough momentum? Do you walk across, perhaps precariously, holding on for dear life and just taking one baby step after another, until you arrive on the other side, the side of “greatness”?

When I asked Mala the question of whether going from “high-potential” to “great” involved a leap or baby steps, she determined that for herself, it actually involves both. On the one hand, there are the baby steps it takes to set boundaries, say no, open that unfinished report on her laptop…

And then there’s figuring out her thing: you know, the thing that, if she just stopped doing that thing, she would untether from the gravitational forces keeping her in place and soar into the stratosphere. For Mala, it’s finishing things, WHICH MEANS being OK with LEAVING ALL THE UNEXPLORED OPTIONS ON THE TABLE *gasp*. And that, Mala posits, requires a leap.

In my friend imi the accountant’s experience, she needed to first take a leap. When she launched her accounting business, the story in her head went something like this, “I’m self-employed now, so I have to find clients, I have to make sure I have enough money, I have to work work work all the time.” But in reality, her “great;” i.e., her best life, included work/life balance, evenings and weekends for herself, the beach, the pool, friends. So she needed to take, and took, the leap to trust that if she worked hard during regular business hours and paid attention to her finances, she could simultaneously be self-employed, be financially secure, and hang out with friends on weekends at the beach. Then, she had to take the baby steps to make sure she planned out and executed business development and workday activities to make that happen.

For me? I think it depends on the activity. I know my best life includes being out and about, finding interesting, charming, nature-soaked places to read, write, and reflect. And I know what it would take for me to achieve this seemingly small, yet for me “great” reality of working from locations unexplored throughout Maryland and beyond. It would take baby steps. It would take, on a Sunday afternoon, me looking at a map and finding places within metro or driving distance of me with wifi, and then looking at my calendar and deciding which day I’d go where. Baby steps.

Setting aside one day a week for my creative endeavors? That’s a leap. That’s feeling the fullness of my power, setting the boundaries that Scott Eblin talks about, a psychic shift from “if that’s the only day they’re available, then I have to adjust my schedule because this meeting is too important,” to “oops, I see I have a personal obligation that entire day, which is as vital to me as the air that I breathe, so we’ll simply have to find another day for the meeting.” Gulp. Even just writing that down is terrifying.

So it occurs to me that my mission, should I choose to accept it, is twofold: (1) find baby-step ways to build the practice of finding the next new interesting, charming, nature-soaked place to work; and (2) make the leap of dedicating a day each week to my creative projects.

I’m increasingly convinced that closing the gap between “great” and “high-potential” simply depends on paying attention to our daily practices, on just boosting, even ever so slightly, small things we can do to move from wistful wishes to crushing it.

Are you in? Check in with me next week! I’ll tell you whether I accomplished my best week, and you can share how you moved toward your best week.

Heron in flight through marsh.
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