Owning It

July 9, 2009

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Wendy Kopp, co-founder of Teach for America, gave an insightful answer to the question: What are you looking for in teachers you recruit? (Emphasis added below):

We’ve done a lot of research on the characteristics of our teachers who are the most successful. The most predictive trait is still past demonstrated achievement, and all selection research basically points to that. But then there is a set of personal characteristics. And the No. 1 most predictive trait is perseverance, or what we would call internal locus of control. People who in the context of a challenge — you can’t see it unless you’re in the context of a challenge — have the instinct to figure out what they can control, and to own it, rather than to blame everyone else in the system.

In this case, there are so many people who could be blamed — kids, kids’ families, the system. And yet you’ll go into schools and you’ll see people teaching in the same hallway, and some have that mentality of, “It’s not possible to succeed here,” and others who are just prevailing against it all. And it’s so much about that mind-set and the instinct to remain optimistic in the face of a challenge.

Kopp’s insight applies to sourcing good leaders, as well.  A pattern of success is not predictive enough, since it reveals nothing about the difficulty of a person’s path.  Paraphrasing Governor Ann Richards, being born on third base and hitting a triple are very different things, although it may be hard to tell the difference from the outside.  If you really want to know how someone will perform with a leadership mandate, look for a pattern of perseverance. Ask them to describe moments when life struck them out, and listen closely to their explanation.  Their willingness to be accountable for a bad outcome, to resist blaming other people or circumstances — what Kopp calls “owning it” — may be the most important indicator of future impact.