All it takes is a question

Don’t ask a question unless you already know the answer.

Have you heard that before? The paternalism in that quote makes my blood boil. I remember my wife and I were once part of a Bible study led by one of our pastors. When he’d ask a question, he’d dutifully faciltiate discussion, adeptly drawing in every participant… but then he always concluded with his own authoritative comment. As we began to realize that he was the only one with the right answer, our discussions became forced and clipped. Becky and I soon found a reason to stop participating in that group.

I’ve blogged before about the power of a question, quoting Ron Heifetz’s great line, “One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.” In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long pointed out that a “well-structured question” can draw emerging leaders into the creative and leadership process. It goes back to control. If you want the outcome to be exactly as you expect, then do all the work yourself. If you want a better result, with a strong developmental bent, then you have to work more as an art director.

When I worked with graphic designers, I would present the question or challenge but withhold my own possible answers until I saw what others came up with. I didn’t want my “authoritative” answer to steer or limit the creative potential of my staff. Offering creative freedom often resulted in an unpredictable but even more creative end product than I could have imagined. More often than not I ended up tucking away my own feeble attempt to answer the question!

Of course, there’s also the risk that your team’s creative ideas just won’t work. There’s a tension that you learn to manage between involving others and drawing out their best versus the fact that you have ultimate responsibility for the end product. I’ve had to make some tough calls as an art director and as a manager to take control back and change the direction. I’ve done it poorly, and I’ve done it well. On a few occasions, I’ve been able to do it in such a way that the team can still share ownership, by steering the project and keeping my staff engaged in the new direction. Usually it involved vulnerability and accepting blame.

So what are some great questions to ask? I’ll suggest a few this week, but I’d love to hear your questions as well.

What does a leader look like? Part 1

That last post brings me back to the core of my blog: what does a leader look like in a postmodern context?

As I’ve observed my generation’s forays into leadership — including our new president, who was born on the cusp of Generation X in 1963 — I suspect a number of things will prove true about Gen X leaders as a whole. Granted, these are stereotypes and the characteristics may well prove to have positive and negative ramifications. I want to dig into what a leader looks like over the next month, but I’m going to be sporatic until I take my new position in April. Hang in there with me, and set your RSS feed.

I think Gen X leaders are not always immediately identifiable. They may not be the most vocal or the one up front. When you walk into a room of young people, you’re likely to note a few extroverts who stand out for being the most vocal. A few seem to command the ears of the rest though they’re not as outspoken. Others might carry the right technology or always seem to wear the right clothes. But the one in charge – the one who called the group together and did the behind the scenes work to get them there and subtly shift the conversation – may not be any of these.

Leadership is influence, after all. You can have a huge amount of influence without being the one in front. I gave an example of this kind of “back row leadership” in my very first post. Here’s another: do you remember in Amazing Grace how William Wilberforce was the vocal one in the House of Commons, but prime minister William Pitt was secretly pulling strings without offering any emotion from the floor? There was no question that Pitt was the power broker, though Wilberforce got the headlines.

So, why not lead from the front? There could be a lot of reasons, but let me suggest a few:

1. We have an iconic view of leaders. To be a leader, you have to have the complete package: a face for magazine covers, great speaking ability, amazing organizational aptitude and abundant confidence, empathy and wisdom. Who can measure up to the image? Either leaders are larger than life or they’re failing gloriously. Or both.

2. I think there is a strong preference for avoiding risk. It’s easier to sit in the back row and take potshots at the person at the front. The one at the front is putting his neck out, and that takes courage and confidence — two traits that seem to be lacking among many young people. Perhaps we’ve been too sheltered. Anyway, it’s easier to influence someone else to get out front and take the risk instead.

3. Younger leaders prefer facilitation. It’s a philosophical difference. We like to do accomplish things together, and sorting out the roles to recognize success gets messy when it was done as a team. Maybe it doesn’t matter who gets the credit, after all.

4. I think many in my generation see power as a trap. They’re not interested in all the perks that go along with position. No amount of power or money can make up for the long hours, the cost to family, the stress or the inability to wear jeans to work. Better to keep your freedom and your balance.