One of the greatest challenges faced by leaders today is overcoming the notion that they have all the answers. This mindset is a function of an unstated set of fundamental values that effectively seal the leader off from the inputs, inspiration, and ideas of others.
These unstated values are:
- I am always right.
- Never question what I say or do.
- Don’t think, act, feel or believe anything that I would disapprove of.
- Don’t value anything that I don’t value.
- Don’t think or learn anything that might threaten my supremacy, my position or role.
- Don’t make mistakes—and if you do, make sure you take the blame.
- And, if in doubt, refer to Value #1.
As we consider ourselves introspectively, most recoil from the idea that we might have these values. However, do our behaviors and actions send a different message?
As you work with others, do you have tendency to speak first, to offer your ideas concerning problems or opportunities before entertaining the ideas of others? The fact that you are “the boss” automatically means that your ideas carry more weight than others. By rushing out your ideas, you run the risk that others will “go along to get along,” leaving you without other valuable viewpoints.
Often in my consulting work, as I visit a client’s operation, I observe things that could be changed immediately to improve productivity. My natural tendency is to blurt these out, prescribing what the client should do. I have learned, however, that this is precisely the wrong thing to do. Although it would provide immediate value, the greater value for the client is to have them discover better ways to do things. This requires me to ask good questions that will lead the client to their answers. As legendary business guru, Peter Drucker put it, “my greatest strength is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” He further stated that “the questions are mine, but the answers have to be yours.”
This approach to leadership has several important aspects. First, it engenders deep thought on the part of those whom you question, often revealing new insights. Second, it increases their engagement in solving problems and seeing opportunities. And third—and most importantly—it substantially amplifies their buy-in in implementing solutions.
Beyond these advantages, establishing the practice of asking questions rather than immediately telling others how you see things may literally save your business from failure, or even save lives.
Consider the NASA Challenger and Columbia disasters. Edgar Schein in his book, Humble Inquiry, notes that in analyzing these tragedies, it was found “that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of those accidents, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.” Why didn’t these employees raise their concerns? The consequences of their silence was clearly devastating, and it is easy to point the finger of blame at them. Ultimately, however, NASA’s leaders must bear responsibility for creating a culture that discouraged their people from challenging their omniscience and infallibility.
Do you ever ask yourself: “Could I be wrong?” Or as a client recently suggested to a group of his peers: “Please tell me how my baby is ugly.” We all suffer periodically from confirmation bias, the tendency to search for, interpret, and rely on information that confirms our existing beliefs. A valuable practices to inoculate against this is to invite, even demand, negative feedback. This creates an open atmosphere for employees to express their concerns. Might this practice have averted the NASA disasters? We don’t know, but it’s clear that making this a regular practice creates a culture of openness and engagement. The feedback received may be hard to swallow, but it can be the most important information a leader ever receives.
Do you feel threatened by the talents and skills of others? Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, in her book, Mindset, compares and contrasts former Ford Motors CEO, Lee Iacocca with G.E. CEO, Jack Welch.
“Iacocca played painful games with his executives to keep them off balance,” Dweck notes, making sure that they understood that he was the real corporate hero. His message: Do well, but not too well; make sure you validate me!
Jack Welch, on the other hand, nurtured his people. He would go directly to his front-line employees to figure out what was going on. He led by the code, “True self-confidence is the courage to be open—to welcome change and ideas regardless of their source.”
Leadership carries a variety of perks. We must realize that those that reinforce a sense of infallibility are, in fact, destructive for ourselves and our people.
Richard Tyson is the founder, principal owner and president of CEObuilder, which provides forums for consulting and coaching to executives in small businesses.