Ensuring the Wheat Seeds Grow

What do Clint Eastwood in “Million Dollar Baby,” Tom Cruise in “Jerry McGuire” and Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side” have in common?

They’re all characters that sought the best in others, even in their darkest hours. Growing champions isn’t about applause or approval. Championing makes someone feel treasured, not just appreciated.

Great mentors focus on the effect they’re trying to create, not on the set of tasks they’re supposed to “check off.” It’s much like empowerment. Leaders don’t embed power; they remove the barriers to it.

In much the same way, great mentors don’t recognize or appreciate; they nourish spirit by whatever means necessary.

The by-products of great championing are enhanced employee self-esteem, confidence, pride and commitment. Champion growers focus more on the outcome of their efforts and less on the process.

Did you ever have someone who believed in you unconditionally even though you didn’t feel you deserved it? A celebrator recognizes and affirms what you accomplish, but a grower of champions shows respect and admiration for who you are and believes in you when others may have written you off.

Mentors as champion growers do not view their role as cheerleaders; they see themselves more as stewards of reputation.

Learning takes risks, and risk-taking involves breaking patterns and abandoning “the way we’ve always done it.” To get protégé growth, it’s important to affirm appropriate risk taking, not foolhardy recklessness.

For example, one high-tech company gives its annual “green weenie” award to the individual who, while clearly pursuing excellence, made a mistake that produced the greatest organizational learning and improvement.

A happy-go-lucky nurse won the hearts of her patients by bringing them flowers grown in her garden and cookies baked in her oven. They raved to managers about her sunny disposition and special generosity.

She was the recipient of a special recognition at the annual awards banquet to the sharp displeasure of her co-workers. While all acknowledged her special way with patients, they were quick to point out her sloppy paperwork, inconsistent hand-washing and unwillingness to pull her weight on tasks they all shared.

All those poor practices adversely affected the health care outcome but were out of sight to her fans. Effective affirmation practices require performance on “the basics” to be at least at expected levels.

When famed tennis coach Mike Estep talks about his role as the coach of tennis great Martina Navratilova, he focuses on bringing out the very best in his client. Likewise, Tiger Woods credits his late father Earl with helping him think about making an impact on the world beyond golf.

These people zeroed in on a vision of greatness that was much more than the sum of the competitor. Champion growers are committed to a vision and use it as a tool, not only to direct and align performance but also to affirm and motivate protégés.

So what do the best leaders do?

They separate praise and criticism. If your goal is to praise, praise. If your goal is to criticize, criticize. Mixing the two can turn a confirming pat on the back into a controlling kick in the pants.

Archeologists excavating the pyramids discovered wheat seeds that dated back to around 2500 B.C. As in the tradition of antiquity, the seeds were there for the dead pharaoh to eat if he got hungry.

The find was important because it would enable scientists to determine what variety of wheat was in use in the ancient world and could be invaluable for engineering new types of wheat.

Out of curiosity, the scientists planted the 4,500-year-old wheat seed in fertile soil and an amazing thing happened: The wheat seeds grew.

 In the end, the goal of the mentoring relationship is to ensure that, in the end, “the wheat seeds grow.”