What Can Aluminum Teach You About Leadership Development?

Like the element, great performers are everywhere — but extracting their potential requires mining their skills and nurturing their development.


Certain materials have consistently been valuable throughout history. People have valued gold and silver, literally, forever. The value of other precious metals has varied over time. Today, I am going to tell you the brief history of aluminum; I think it will surprise you. But more importantly, I will translate these lessons to us as leaders — lessons more valuable than aluminum.

Aluminum is the most prevalent metal in the earth’s crust, even more common than iron ore. But since it can’t be extracted from ore with heat, it remained unused until 1825 when Hans Christian Oersted created a few flakes of what now is considered an aluminum alloy. Whatever it was, those who saw it, wanted it. It looked like a brand new precious metal.

Here’s a brief history of what followed from

…aluminum became more precious than gold and silver in the 19th century, because it was harder to obtain. The French government once displayed Fort Knox-like aluminum bars next to the crown jewels, and the minor emperor Napoleon III reserved a prized set of aluminum cutlery for special guests at banquets. (Less favored guests used gold knives and forks.) The United States, to show off its industrial prowess, even capped the Washington monument with a six-pound pyramid of aluminum in 1884. By 1888, the company now known as Alcoa could produce up to 50 pounds per day, 20 years later demand was 88,000 pounds per day. In September of 2017, daily global production of aluminum (according to was over 350 million pounds. The earliest records for the price of aluminum, in the mid 1800s was $550 per pound. 50 years later you could buy the same pound for just a quarter.

And now? Aluminum is everywhere, and while not treasured as it once was, it’s utility and wide and varied uses make it a valued and powerful force in the world economy.

What does all of that have to do with leaders?

Too many people think of great performers like people in the mid-1800s thought of aluminum — extremely rare and, therefore, to be highly treasured. Those people are right, if they don’t know how to extract the potential, mine the skills and nurture the development of great performers. In other words, if you believe you can’t extract the potential and reliably turn it into productivity, then great performance will be seen as rare.

But the facts about aluminum in 1825 were no different than they are today — then, as now, aluminum was everywhere. The only difference was that people didn’t know how to access it then. That fact didn’t change the abundance of the material.

So, while there are people everywhere with tremendous potential, if we don’t know how to help them see it and extract that potential, we will only see the rock stars as tremendously valuable. But if we see the world clearly, knowing that tremendous potential is everywhere, and then go to work extracting and refining that potential, we will be far ahead of those opining for the rare rock star.

Your job as a leader isn’t to search for the rock star, as much as it is to see potential and become a “human chemist” working to transform that potential into productivity and results. While doing this well is a life-long endeavor, here are three things you can do today to start your personal transformation, setting the stage for using the valuable potential of others more predictably and successfully.

1. See potential. If you don’t see it, or know it is there, nothing will change.

2. Help others see it too. It isn’t enough for you to see it. Know that many people can’t see what you see, or their belief in themselves is damaged to the point they know longer believe they have any potential.

3. Give them opportunities to use it. As a leader you can provide a safe place for them to try things, build their confidence, and begin to see their potential as real.

Once you have helped people get started you have two more important roles:

1. Encourage progress. No one gets it all right the first time; yet they don’t fail completely either. Encourage the wins and help people build their confidence and momentum.

2. Provide guidance. While encouragement is needed, so too is guidance and correction. Potential won’t turn to productivity without help; and that guidance and correction is part of your job too. When that is done with the hopeful belief in a great future, the guidance will be seen as more valuable and, therefore, more likely accepted by the other person.

Potential is everywhere. It is our job as a leader to help people see it and use it for everyone’s benefit.