Home > @Cell > Don’t Send Your Duck to Eagle School

Don’t Send Your Duck to Eagle School

by Dr John C. Maxwell

My wife, Margaret, and I love Krispy Kreme doughnuts. When we pass a Krispy Kreme shop, we always look for the red neon “Hot Dough­nuts Now” sign that tells potential customers that the doughnuts have just been made and are coming off the assembly line, hot and fresh and deli­cious. Although we do not allow ourselves to indulge often, occasionally we can’t help but give in to temptation. If we see the red light on, one of us will say, “It’s a sign from God that we should stop and buy a doughnut!”

One evening when we were approaching a Krispy Kreme shop, we could clearly see that the light was not on, but we decided to stop anyway. Much to our delight and surprise, the doughnuts were just coming off the conveyer belt, hot and gooey.

“You forgot to turn on the sign to let the customers know the dough­nuts are warm and fresh,” I said to the young lady who waited on us.

“Oh, I don’t turn that sign on a lot of the time,” she replied. “The moment I do, people come into the store and we get too busy. If I keep the sign off, it’s less hectic.”

I was stunned. I wondered, Why would she think like that? At first it didn’t make sense to me. But then, as 1 thought about it, I realized it was a matter of her position influencing her perception. She was an employee who didn’t want to be inconvenienced. Certainly if the owners had been there, they would have turned the sign on! They wouldn’t be hoping for convenience—they would have the success of the whole business and all of its employees in mind.

For more than three decades, I have hosted conferences and written books with the purpose of adding value to people. Experience has taught me a valuable lesson: no matter what I do or how hard I try to help people, not everyone will respond in the same way. Some people will attend a conference and their lives will start to turn around. Others will come and tune out everything I say. Some will change; some won’t. That has always frustrated me. I want everyone to learn, change, grow, and get better!

I experienced a “eureka moment” not long ago when I read something by speaker and consultant Jim Rohn. The article brought me great clarity on this issue. He has given me permission to share his words with you:

The first rule of management is this: don’t send your ducks to eagle school. Why? Because it won’t work. Good people are found, not changed. They can change themselves, but you can’t change them. If you want good people, you have to find them. If you want motivated people, you have to find them, not motivate them.

I picked up a magazine not long ago in New York that had a full-page ad in it for a hotel chain. The first line at the ad read, “We do not teach our people to be nice.” Now that got my attention. The second line said, “We hire nice people.” I thought, “What a clever shortcut!”

Motivation is a mystery. Why are some people motivated and some are not? Why does one salesperson see his first prospect at seven in the morning while the other sees his first prospect at eleven in the morning? Why would one start at seven and the other start at eleven? I don’t know. Call it “mysteries of the mind.”

I give lectures to a thousand people at a time. One walks out and says, “I’m going to change my life.” Another walks out with a yawn and says, I’ve heard all this stuff before.” Why is that?

The wealthy man says to a thousand people, “I read this book, and it started me on the road to wealth.” Guess how many of the thousand go out and get the book? Answer: very few. Isn’t that incredible? Why wouldn’t everyone go get the book? Mysteries of the mind….

To one person, you have to say, “You’d better slow down. You can’t work that many hours, do that many things, go, go, go. You’re going to have a heart attack and die.” And to another person, you have to say, “When are you going to get off the couch?” What is the difference? Why wouldn’t everyone strive to be wealthy and happy?

Chalk it up to mysteries of the mind, and don’t waste your time try­ing to turn ducks into eagles. Hire people who already have the motiva­tion and drive to be eagles and then just let them soar.

Jim’s perspective explains why the worker at Krispy Kreme didn’t turn on the sign, and why I was so surprised. While I was thinking about genera­ting income and maximizing profits, she was thinking about avoiding too much work.

Three Reasons Not to Send Your Ducks to Eagle School

For years my problem was that I believed that if I worked hard and taught the right things, I could turn ducks into eagles. It just doesn’t work. I have to admit, this has been a hard lesson for me. I place a high value on people. I sincerely believe that every person matters. And for years, I believed that anyone could learn just about anything. As a result, I repeatedly tried to send my ducks to eagle school. Here why I no longer do that.

1. If You Send Ducks to Eagle School, You Will Frustrate the Ducks

Let’s face it. Ducks are not supposed to be eagles—nor do they want to become eagles. Who they are is who they should be. Ducks have their strengths and should be appreciated for them. They’re excellent swimmers. They are capable of working together in an amazing display of teamwork and travel long distances together. Ask an eagle to swim or to migrate thousands of miles, and it’s going to be in trouble.

Leadership is all about placing people in the right place so they can be successful. As a leader, you need to know and value your people for who they are and let them work according to their strengths. There’s nothing wrong with ducks. Just don’t ask them to soar or hunt from a high altitude. It’s not what they do.

Author, pastor, and Dallas Theological Seminary chancellor Charles Swindoll illustrates this principle in his book Growing Strong in the Seasons of Life when he writes, 

Once upon a time, the animals decided they should do something mean­ingful to meet the problems of the new world. So they organized a school.

They adopted an activity curriculum of running, climbing, swim­ming, and flying. To make it easier to administer, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, he was better than his instructor was! However, he made only passing grades in flying, and was very poor in running. Since he was so slow in running, he had to drop swimming and stay after school to practice running. This caused his webbed feet to be badly worn so he became only average in swimming. But ‘average’ was quite acceptable, therefore nobody worried about it—except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of his class in running, but developed a nervous twitch in his leg muscles because he had so much makeup work to do in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing, but he encountered constant frustration in flying class because his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. He developed “charley horses” front overexertion. so he only got a “C” in climbing and a “D” in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was severely disciplined for being a non-conformist. In climbing classes, he beat all the others to the top, but insisted on using his own way of getting there! 

All people have strengths they can use to contribute. In The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, I teach The Law of the Niche, which says, All players have a place where they add the most value.” Successful people have discovered their niche. Successful leaders help their people discover theirs. As a leader, you should always challenge people to move out of their comfort zone, but never out of their strength zone. If people are moved out of their strength zone, they soon won’t be in any kind of zone—comfort, strength, or effectiveness.

2. If You Send Ducks to Eagle School, You Will Frustrate the Eagles

My mother used to say, “Birds of a feather flock together.” That’s really true. Eagles don’t want to hang around with ducks. They don’t want to live in a barnyard or swim in a pond. Their potential makes them impatient with those who cannot soar.

People who are used to moving fast and flying high are easily frustrated by people who want to hold them back. I heard a story about Christian Herter, the former governor of Massachusetts, when he was running for a sec­ond term in office. One day after a busy morning of campaigning and skip­ping lunch, he arrived famished at a church barbecue. As the governor moved down the serving line, he held out his plate to the woman serving chicken. She put one piece on his plate and turned to the next person in line.

“Excuse me,” Governor Herter said, “would you mind if I have another piece of chicken?”
“Sorry,” said the woman, “I’m only supposed to give one piece of chicken to each person.”
“But I’m starved,” the governor said,
“Sorry, only one to a customer,” said the woman. The governor was a modest man, but he was also hungry, so he decided to throw his weight around.
“Lady, do you know who I am?” he said. “I am the governor of this state.”
“Do you know who I am?” the woman responded. “I’m the lady in charge of the chicken. Now, move along mister!” Herter no doubt felt like an eagle who was being asked to answer to a duck.

Bill Hybels, a wonderful friend, came down to Atlanta to spend a couple of days with me. The first morning he said, “John, let’s go run on the golf course.”

Bill is a runner He’s slim and fit, and he often runs five to seven miles at a stretch. I, on the other hand, am a walker. (It’s possible to be fat and walk.) We compromised. We would go around the course walking uphill and running downhill.

Off we went. We made our way slowly around the course. As we were approaching the end, all I could think about was how glad I would be when we finally got back to my home and I could rest. Just a little more, I thought. We almost there. I was tired, but I didn’t want to let on to Bill.

As we finally arrived at my house, Bill said, “That was so much fun; let’s do it again!” So we did—and I almost died. I don’t think I want to exercise with Bill anymore. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to exercise with me. He’s an eagle, and I’m a duck!

3. If You Send Ducks to Eagle School, You Will Frustrate Yourself

Have you ever led people who never did rise up and fulfill your expec­tations? No matter how much you motivated them, trained them, provided them with resources, or gave them opportunities, they just didn’t perform according to your expectations? That’s happened to me many times.

Maybe they weren’t the problem . Maybe you were! A familiar Mother Goose rhyme reads,

Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the queen.
Pussy Cat, Pussy Cat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under the chair.

Why did the cat start chasing a mouse in London when he was there to see the queen—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Because he was a cat! What else would you expect him to do?

Cats do what cats do, ducks do what ducks do, and eagles do what eagles do. If you take a duck and ask it to do an eagle’s job, shame on you. As a leader, your job is to help your ducks to become better ducks and your eagles better eagles—to put individuals in the right places and help them reach their potential.

As I’ve said, over the years I’ve made the mistake of trying to turn ducks into eagles. All I did was frustrate them and myself. You shouldn’t ask someone to grow in areas where they have no natural talent.

Why? Because our ability to grow and change is very different depend­ing on whether or not we can make choice. Let me explain. In areas where we have choices, our growth potential is unlimited. Attitude is a choice. Character is a choice. Responsibility is a choice. So, for example, if I have a terrible attitude —a 1 on a scale of 1 to 10—I can improve it all the way up to a 10 by making the right choices. I can choose to have a great attitude.

In contrast, natural ability is not a choice. It’s a gift you have whatever you have. The only real choice you have is whether or not you will try to develop it. And if you do, the growth in that area will not be as dramatic. After training and mentoring people for forty years, I’ve found that people can improve only about two points out often in any given talent. Therefore, if a person is born a 3 in a given area, he may be able to become a 5, but he’ll never go from a 3 to a 10. So if you have someone who is a great swimmer and loves to fly in V formation, send him to duck school. No matter how motivated or intelligent he is, he’ll never become an eagle. You cannot put in something that God has left out

Know What You’re Looking For

A few years ago when I was speaking at a national Chick-fil-A-conference, a restaurant manager asked me a question: “How do you develop good leaders?”

My answer was, “Find people who are potentially good leaders.”
“How do you find potentially good leaders?” he asked.
“Know what potential good leaders look like I responded.

I wasn’t trying to be evasive or sarcastic. As a leader, it is your responsibility to know what you’re looking for. You need to know what qualities and characteristics are present in leaders who are successful in your industry. Study successful leaders. Interview people you admire. Ask them about their development process. Find out what they were like when they were just getting started. The more you know about leadership, the easier it will be to recognize a leader when you see one.

Its very important for a leader to get the right people in the organiza­tion and put them in the right positions. There are few things that a leader does that are more important than this. If you need eagles in your organization, make it your mission to search for people who possess some of the qualities you’ve seen in other eagles. Look high and low. If you can’t find any potential eagles within your organization, search for them outside of it. In other words, if you need a great eagle, go find a potential eagle. Only then do you have the possibility of developing that person into a great eagle. Don’t get a duck. No matter how much you train that person, all you’ll receive is a “quack.”

Application Exercises

A. Who have you put in the wrong place? If you are the leader of an organi­zation, a department, or a team, then it is your responsibility to make sure people are working according to their strengths. Have you been trying to turn ducks into eagles, frustrating everyone in the process? Set aside time to take stock of the natural talents of your people. Talk to them also about their passions, hopes, and dreams. You can’t lead people well if you don’t know who they are.

B. Do you need to free some eagles to soar and ducks to swim? If you have held down any eagles in your organization in the past or tried to turn ducks into eagles, you will need to do two things: First, reposition them so that they work according to their strengths. Second, you will need to regain their trust. Acknowledge their natural talents, help them to develop their strengths, and show them how they can contribute to the organization.

C. Do you know what potential leaders look like? I have yet to find an organization that had all the good leaders it needed. For that reason, good leaders are always on the lookout for potential leaders. If you have done your own research on leadership characteristics, use what you’ve found to create a description of what you’re looking for in potential leaders. If you haven’t, you may want to use one of my lists. This one is taken from my book The 360” Leader. I’ve found that good leaders and potential leaders display the following characteristics:

  • Adaptability – Quickly adjust to change
  • Discernment – Understands the real issues
  • Perspective – Sees beyond their own vantage point
  • Communication – Links to all levels of the organization
  • Security – Does not find identity in position
  • Servanthood – Does whatever it takes
  • Resourcefulness -Find creative ways to make things happen
  • Maturity – Puts the Team Before Self
  • Endurance – Remains a consistent in character and competence over the long haul
  • Countability – Can be counted on when it counts

If you see people who display most of these characteristics, you are probably looking at people with great leadership potential.

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Categories: @Cell
  1. March 17, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Hi this blog is great I will be recommending it to friends.

  2. February 5, 2010 at 7:07 pm

    Great article. Thank you for your insights!

  3. Joseph
    October 3, 2012 at 5:48 am

    Too Bad MY SUPERVISORS consistently choose to Fail to see my Leadership Potential – though they accused me (between the lines) of being a “Fletcher Christian” type who could Usurp their precious Power and Control (I am not kidding) when I was still a “newbie” in the Department that they were micro-managing – which now requires far less of that micro-managing, thanks to my efforts and those of other capable and intelligent people in the department, who speak up TO EACH OTHER and HELP EACH OTHER despite our sure knowledge that our supervisors would try to micro-manage each new situation as it occurs, except they usually never get the chance now because a situation typically never even gets to their level if we can help it… and everyone Smiles more! The difference is that Fletcher Christian, although he spent the rest of his life hiding from the authorities because he would likely have been hanged, had to sever his relationship with his supervisor [Captain Bligh] whereas I have decided to make friends with mine. This has been very difficult but not impossible, and like so many natural-born leaders I actually do enjoy a challenge. I believe that someday the wealth of experience that these circumstances have provided me with will prove invaluable! Too bad my supervisors take all the credit for the success of our Department, collecting $20K and $51K more per year (respectively) than I do, while continuing to retaliate against me for rocking their boat by giving me poor performance evaluations every time they get the chance, which makes me wonder if I’ll ever succeed in finding another position within the company working for a supervisor who practices less favoritism and is less rude and insensitive to subordinates… Anyone who might interview me for another position within the company, reading those damaging evaluations, is likely to ask me why my marks are so low, or to try to ask the question between the lines, or to simply call my supervisor[s] and ask – which could be a blessing in disguise, if the caller is thinking, ‘Consider the Source’ and others in the company have shared pertinent knowledge about my supervisors… Right now I am just ‘waiting them out’ because the longer I can survive under these circumstances the more obvious it will become that if my job performance were as poor as my performance evaluations state, then I would have been fired many moons ago!

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  1. March 18, 2014 at 12:02 am

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