Nurturing Potential

The Heart of Governance

by Lynn McGregor

  Life will work best for you and therefore for others when you can achieve a balance of 50 per cent giving, and 50 per cent receiving.”  

This was taught to me by my South Dakota Native American teacher eight years ago and I have been thinking about it ever since, particularly in relation to my work with business leaders in the UK and the USA. At the time I was working extremely hard in four companies who wanted us to help optimise the potential of their directors. For me at the time, giving was easy. We were highly in demand and highly successful financially. Receiving was not as easy. I noticed that I felt tired and was grumpy with friends who tried to support me. Even worse, I believed that I did not have any spare time and was a “busy-ness” rather than a “human being”. Even worse, when I did take time out and went into nature, I found myself staring at the beauty of a tree, knowing in my head that the tree was beautiful, but not feeling it. I knew then, that I was badly out of balance and needed to learn how to receive again. Otherwise how could I really give of my best? I realised that I was feeling drained and suffering from what I advise my clients to guard against. Because I was not taking responsibility for nurturing my own potential, I was in danger of losing it.  

Manfred Max-Neef [1] argued that much of the trouble in the world was because we try ineffective ways to satisfy real human needs. In our society, many try to satisfy deep-seated needs to be loved, acknowledged and appreciated through money, status and being busy. And the less fulfilled we feel, the more money and status we try to achieve until it becomes an addiction where more and more gives us less and less. I also believe that a deep-seated human need is to find and develop what we are best at. Joseph Campbell [2] said that the most important thing in life is to find and follow your bliss.  

We’re so engaged in doing things to achieve purposes of outer value that we forget that the inner value, the rapture that is associated with being alive, is what it’s all about.”  

I would agree, except with the caveat that one’s “bliss” should not harm others.  

When we talk about nurturing potential, we often mean nurturing the best in us, or healing aspects of ourselves that stop us from being effective or happy. However, the real question in my mind is what are we nurturing? Is what we are nurturing really right for us and for the greater good?  

At the start of the Conference on Sustainable Development, at the end of August this year, Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa said it was time to come together to work not only on cleaning up the planet, but also on narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor. He said that it was time to re-evaluate “the savage principle of survival of the fittest.” Now, more than ever, after the collapse of Enron and Worldcom because of dishonesty and greed, we are aware of the shadow side of the system we live in. These are the negative effects of competition, ambition and materialism. We are brought up to be competitive, to win over others and are valued according to our financial wealth and status. Is it surprising then that some people have developed their potential along self interested lines?  

What with global warming, unstable economies and September 11th, we are being invited to re-evaluate the kinds of potential we nurture in others and ourselves. This means being more conscious about the choices we make about life and how much freedom we have to act. It is also influenced by the wisdom, maturity and humanity of those we allow to govern us. This in turn, depends on how they have been nurtured themselves.  

In the twenty years that I have been working with business and other leaders, I have discovered that how they have been nurtured or deprived, makes an enormous difference to the quality of the decisions they make and the ways in which they treat people.  

Many of my clients are millionaires. Collectively they have extraordinary power over the fates of organisations, the environment and livelihoods of thousands of people, not to mention the communities they serve, or abuse. However, as a CEO of a major global business with a good environmental track record said, “ unless I am making a positive and meaningful difference to the world, all I am doing is banging golden nails in my coffin.” I have come across many people who are genuinely making a positive difference. In the course of my work, I ask people to talk about the history of their lives. This is to find out what is the essence, or the area of genius that each person has and wants to develop so that she or he can really give of their best and continue to do so. In every case, the same thing has made a positive difference to them.    

What really helped them was the presence of one or more significant people in their lives who had recognised their worth and took time to encourage them. It could have been a teacher or a relative, or a boss or senior colleague. But the words are all very similar; he or she “made me feel I mattered and that I could do amazing things. He/she spent time with me showing me what I could do. I did better than I could ever have imagined. I have never forgotten.” Those people, who have been supported on their life paths, are also the people who do the same for their employees. It is not just something that is tacked onto a training programme or a one off event. It is a belief in the value of human beings and their potential and therefore a way of life. Developing potential is not just to do with personal development; it is also learning the skills and expertise necessary to do specific kinds of work. More than that, it is the collective ability of human beings to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions that create meaningful results.   

 In my book, “The Human Face of Corporate Governance” [3] , I argued that ‘governance’ was a human decision-making process between investors, boards and executives about the fate of companies, organisations and countries. I also suggested that there were four levels of governance, self governance – concerning each of us, inter personal governance, concerning how we relate to each other and make group decisions, inter group governance, decisions negotiated between representative groups and systemic governance – the effect of the system on how we govern. Some of us have more potential to operate at some of these levels than others.  

In the work that we do with boards and top executives, we have found that nurturing personal and team potential, makes a significant improvement to achieving successful results. For example, a CEO totally changed his style from being aggressive and critical to that of mentoring and encouraging his people. From a position where he was given six months to get his act together or leave, he eventually become CEO of a large international company. Another Director discovered that she was in the wrong job even though she was doing well. She changed her role and her company and found that she was not only very happy, but achieving much more than she dreamed.  

A board of directors in a family company were not making decisions because they were arguing all the time. The chairperson asked us to enable them to work better together. We worked individually with each person and the board as a whole. As a result an environment was created where people really listened to each other. They were able to support and challenge the executive team. The company not only won prizes for being the best employer of the year, but also increased its profits and grew successfully. People loved working there.  

Whether we are able to work in a positive environment or not, makes a great difference to the extent to which we can nurture potential. However, all of us live in a stressful world with many challenges. Nurturing potential is now more important than ever. But the kind of potential we need to nurture also needs to include developing our inner resources to deal with uncertainty, instability and sometimes despair and depression as well as our ability to experience joy, love and beauty. Only then can we use our knowledge and expertise to the real benefit of others.  

Nurturing real potential is the celebration of what is humanly best in us. This can come from providing an environment in which we are loved, acknowledged and can flower and grow. However, it is important also to remember that some of the best life lessons come from having to face and deal with adversity. If I had not suffered under a tyrannical regime, I would not have understood why power should be used wisely or have as much compassion for people. Nurturing potential is not all sweetness and light. After all, some of the best plants are nourished by compost.

[1] Manfred Max-Neef, “Human Scale Development”, Apex Press 1991

[2] Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth” Doubleday, 1988, Pg 6

[3] Lynn McGregor  “The Human Face of Corporate Governance”, Palgrave 2000

Lynn McGregor is a recognised leader in the field of corporate governance and executive leadership. She is an experienced coach, mentor and lecturer and has significantly improved the performance of many chairpersons, CEOs, executive and non-executive directors. 

Lynn's clients include such household names as: Allied Dunbar - Dixons - IBM - Cadbury Schweppes - Mars - Reuters - Consignia - BP - British Post Office and Hermes Asset Management  

Her work with chairpersons and CEOs is designed to upgrade the human aspects of corporate governance to a level where they integrate successfully with existing business expertise, so resulting in better decision-making and competitive advantage. 

In September 2000 her book The Human Face of Corporate Governance was published by Palgrave, the business division of MacMillan and became a best-seller in its field.   Four years earlier her Homage to Hope, the story of her childhood in South Africa and her experiences of the apartheid regime was published by ASPEN. described at

She is also the designer of the Inner Quest Game, based on the Inner Quest activities she developed from her studies of Native North American culture.  Details may be seen on the ASPEN website at