Don't Use Your Power to Hold People Back

Pete Ross

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I stood before the intimidating panel of officers awaiting my fate. My hope was that they’d tell me I had everything they were looking for and that I’d be accepted into army officer training. The major in charge asked me if I felt I’d had a fair chance to display my abilities — I stupidly said yes. There's no way I should have said such a thing. The me of today would have told him that the exercise was ridiculous, because when you throw fifteen people together and just expect all of them to show leaderhip, that's no way to test who has leadership potential.

But that’s not who I was back then.

Unfortunately the feedback I received was the exact opposite of what I’d hoped for. The major sat there staring at me and in no uncertain terms said “you don’t have the leadership traits we require.”

That was an incredibly final way of putting it. No “come back and try again later”, no “here’s what you need to work on for the future,” nothing. Just a simple “you don’t have what it takes.” That made me mad, as it would most people. I found myself vindicated just 9 months later after enlisting when, as a trainee I was given command of a field exercise for 3 days which happened to include simulated combat. After it was over, the exercise staff sought me out to tell me what a great job I had done, that I’d performed the role of a lieutenant perfectly with none of the training.

I’ve since had multiple chances to be a leader and I’ve become better at each one.

I met several people during my time in the service who had the same experience as me. People that were intelligent, well spoken and who had gained high respect from their peers. They would have made fine officers (and one of them later did), but they were all told, like me, that they didn’t have what it takes.

There is something that really irks me about people who do this to others. I’ve known people in the business world too who were flat out denied the chance to get promoted to management because those higher up in the food chain had decided that they weren’t strong enough, weren’t assertive enough, that they’d “get eaten alive.” Just like the army, upper management decided that despite the person being great at their job, they couldn’t even be trained or mentored to be a manager, because they just didn’t have what it takes.

Such decisions mean that at their company, they are effectively cut off at the knees in their career because there is nowhere else to go. When I hear stories like this, an urge overcomes me to go and speak to the people that make these decisions with such finality and to ask them one thing:

Who the hell do you think you are?

To tell someone that they can’t do something with such finality is, in my opinion, unspeakably arrogant and condescending. You’re effectively placing yourself as a higher power that knows a person so intimately that you can predict their future and subsequently put limits on them. No coaching, no advice, no support, just a flat out no, we won’t ever promote you to management.

Look at any great fighter, founder, or creative. All the people in their lives that told them they’d never achieve what they expected. All of them wrong. This happens on a regular basis for some people. Do you know the funny thing about that major who told me I didn’t have the leadership traits they required? Ever since I enlisted I was asked non-stop by my superiors why I didn’t go the other path to officer training, and would I please think about it in the future?

The reason I grew and was able to effectively lead people was because I was given multiple chances to do so. My superiors never took that major’s word and said “sorry mate, you don’t have what it takes.” No, the more I proved myself, the more chances I was given. That’s how it’s supposed to be. You can’t predict the future of a person and how they’re going to handle a situation with any accuracy. All you’re doing when you assume they’ll fail is applying your bias to the situation. You think they’ll fail because they’ll do it differently to how you would.

Always remember though, you aren’t the gold standard of what it takes. Don’t be so arrogant to think that just because you can’t see it, that it isn’t possible.

I’ve been doubted plenty of times since that day 15 years ago, and not always in respect to management or leadership capabilities, often over a mere personality difference. The ones who gave me a shot were always rewarded tenfold for their faith, the ones that didn’t never knew what they missed out on.

What I want you to take away from my story is this: don’t abuse your power by denying people their shot at something just because you can’t see how they would do it. People can and will surprise you by rising to the occasion and working it out in their own way. If they’ve displayed excellence but you feel like there isn’t any proof in one area, give them a damn shot. Give them some coaching, mentoring or support if you think they’ll need it.

That’s what good managers do, because only the lazy ones will pick someone based on checking all the experience boxes. Let’s get this straight, experience doesn’t mean much at all. All it means is that you’ve done it — it doesn’t mean you’ve done it well, that you care about it, that you’re good at it or that you can teach it to others.

Ask yourself, is your hesitation over someone really for a valid reason, or are you holding them back from what they could become, because your bias makes you doubt they can do it?

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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