Extracting Greatness

In my interviews with highly effective teachers, a fourth grade teacher told a story every leader should understand.  On first day of school, she announced that it was time to begin math.  Suddenly, one of her students burst into tears.    She took the girl to the hall for a brief and private conversation.  As they talked, the young girl shared, “I can’t do math.  Numbers don’t make sense to me. I hate math.”

The teacher made a promise.  “You know what?  You don’t know me very well, and I don’t know you very well yet, but I’m going to trust that you are a mathematician.  You just haven’t figured it out yet, and I need you to trust that I can get you to see that.”

As the year unfolded, the teacher connected with the girl. “I worked with her to go back and build some foundations, hence confidence that she could kind of start moving on.”

By the end of the year, the student shared that math was her favorite subject and that she “loved the challenge of trying to figure it out.”   She scored well on the state math assessment and wrote the teacher a letter thanking her for turning her into a mathematician.

Surprisingly the teacher had a different interpretation.  She told us that she did not turn the girl into a mathematician.  She said that the student “always was [a mathematician].”  What kept the girl from knowing that she was a mathematician was her lack of confidence.  Once she had confidence and acted upon it, what was already in her simply came out.

Under normal assumptions we believe it is the teacher’s job to be an expert, to instruct or inform, to put information into students.  Educe is a root of the word education.  Educe means to draw or extract, to bring the out the greatness that is already in them.  Many of the highly effective teachers shared this unusual orientation.  I see the same orientation in highly effective leaders.



  • Who has ever helped you to discover your own greatness?
  • When you look at your direct reports what do you see?
  • What are you doing to bring the greatness out of your people?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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