Anytime you get a new person in your organization, you have an opportunity. Anytime a fresh set of eyes looks at the rut you live in, they’re going to see things that never occur to you. The key is to give that person permission to point out things that don’t make sense. Let them question everything. Your goal as an organization is to maximize that key window of opportunity.

I’ll never forget a testimonial I heard in Junior High about a chain-smoking biker who visited church for the first time. While I don’t remember the entire talk, one line lodged in my mind: At the door, a waiter handed him a menu and then walked him to his seat. Growing up in the church, it never occurred to me how absurd some of our common practices must be to those we desperately want to step in our doors. Why do we do them? Probably because no one ever asked why.

I’m trying to take advantage of my transition time with Wycliffe Canada, especially the months where I don’t have the title yet. I’m asking lots of questions, and I’m okay with the appearance of naivete. I’m fully aware that if I try to act like I know the answer, I’ll cheat Wycliffe Canada out of the foundational questions I should be asking. That’s the approach Patrick Lencioni endorses in his leadership book, Getting Naked.

So a fresh set of eyes is critical to challenge our practices and point out the obvious that is no longer apparent to the insiders.

That said, I think the emperor knew he had no clothes. Deep down, we know we’re maintaining absurdity. We know that we need to make a change; we just don’t want to do it. At the Catalyst conference a few years ago, Andy Stanley shared a quote that didn’t originate from him but stuck with him. Likewise, it stuck with me. It’s a pair of questions to ask your team, to help them move toward action and courage:

If our Board were to fire all of us today and bring in a new team, what changes would that new group of leaders make? What’s to stop us from stepping out of the room, walking back in and doing the same things?

That quote led me to my conviction for any job:

If I know what I need to do but don’t have the energy to do it, it’s time to step aside.

I love Steven Sample’s The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. He points out that while the conventional view of leaders is that they’re decisive and bold, most situations don’t necessarily call for snap decisions. Instead, he offers two rules for decision making:

1. Never make a decision yourself that can reasonably be delegated to a lieutenant.

So the first question he proposes that a leader ask is whether he’s the one to make the decision. A colleague of mine often reminds me that budget decisions are better made by the local manager. That’s true for more than just budgets, and it’s a good reminder to figure out who is best-qualified to make a decision. But I believe Sample is going a step further with his contrarian advice. He’s saying that a leader should deliberately delegate a decision he has the right to make as an act of empowerment to his team. Of course, he qualifies it by saying “reasonably,” but he’s talking about a bent, a tendency to defer on decisions whenever possible.

When all decisions have to pass through the top, we generally refer to that style of leadership as “autocratic.” But not all autocrats are despots. In Servant Empowered Leadership, Don Page says there’s a subsidiary of the autocratic model that he calls the “benevolent dictator.” These paternalistic leaders thrive in Christian organizations.

In its simplest form, it means that the leader alone knows what is best for the organization, either because of their direct connection to God or because of their superior God-given abilities.

Ouch. I know a few of these… in other organizations, of course. I pray that if I ever take that viewpoint, I’ll have given someone enough room at some more sane point in my tenure to be able to call me out on it. Far better to empower your managers at every level to make decisions. And to consciously push a decision down to build the capacity of your team.

I’m a problem solver. I love to fix people’s problems, and over the last decade, I’ve honed a reputation for creative problem solving. But I discovered that when I’m the only one to solve problems and put out fires, I become a firefighter. It’s all I have time to do. Every problem routes through me… and usually adds another dozen emails to my inbox. The sad part about firefighting is that it’s not leadership. It consumes all your time so you can’t focus on the things that only you can do. As Ken Blanchard and Mark Miller say in The Secret, leaders can’t work on “Heads Up” activities like vision and strategy if they’re spending all their time on “Heads Down” activities like putting out fires.

So I’ve learned to turn it around. If my staff present a problem to me, the best way to respond is with a question: “what do you think we should do?” Put the onus on them, and draw them into the solution process. There’s a good chance they have some ideas. If they don’t, they will next time they bring a problem to me. I now keep a sign on my desk that says, “Equip problem solvers.” I’d rather do that than be the Chief Problem Solver.

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.

Control has a lot of appeal. It’s probably the reason most people get into leadership roles. But it’s overrated. The more complex the leadership settings I get into, the more I realize that there are so many factors that are utterly impossible to control. In Leading with a Limp, Dan Allender points out the illusions and pitfalls of trying to maintain control of complex situations, crises and chaos. Control is an illusion, he says. A controlling leader tries to limit chaos and uncertainty. Instead, they should be embraced as part of the creative process.

The only solution I’ve found to the pitfalls of control is to give it away. Not to have it taken by prying apart my dead fingers, but to consciously choose to give it away. Give what away? Over the next few posts, I’ll unpack a couple of ideas.

Give power away

Autocratic leadership is a trap. It is self-limiting. The only way to accomplish all that we’re asked to do as leaders is to empower those around us to make decisions.  In The Leadership Jump, Jimmy Long says:

Existing leaders have to realize that we are not the only ones who can drive; there are younger leaders who know how to drive better in this new and increasingly technological culture.

Long calls these emerging leaders “indigenous people.” To one who appreciates technology but is never completely comfortable with it, that phrase says it all. Call me “crosscultural.”The fact is that those from younger generations can do things in their sleep that require a lot of effort from those of us from earlier generations.

Long goes on to draw from a Harvard Business Review article by Deborah Ancona called “In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.”

As existing leaders are willing to admit that they are incomplete and need others, and are willing to share the leadership with others on the team, then together they can get extraordinary things done.

Team leadership breaks past any one leader’s limitations. But let’s get practical. How do you get started? Long suggests offering well-structured questions to draw emerging leaders into the process of discovering the answers together. Dr. Steven Sample offers another simple but radical suggestion in The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership: never make a decision that could be made by someone else. In other words, continually push decisions down. You’ll accomplish a lot more while you’re in your position, and you’ll leave your mark on the next few generations of leaders.

Long again:

We actually gain power by giving it away. It is a different kind of power. Instead of it being the power of control, it is the power of relationship, the power of shared decision making, the power of blessing.

Steve Moore talked about the “reactive hypothetic” — a young leader with enough self awareness and contextual consciousness that he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, but isn’t willing/ready/courageous enough to be the one taking initiative. The problem is that this kind of person can end up in the peanut gallery, taking potshots at leadership.

Coming from a generation that prefers the role of critic, I see this one all the time. I’m reminded of a great moment in The Princess Bride when Andre the Giant is told he can take care of someone “his way.” “Oh, good… which way’s my way?” We know that something’s wrong with a situation, but we don’t know how we’d do it any differently. I’ve always got my eyes open for those exceptional young people who follow through with ideas to fill the void. It’s easy to point out mistakes, but are they willing to offer alternatives to replace what’s broken?

That takes courage and determination. Courage to decide you’re going to succeed with a new model. And perseverance similar to a 1-year-old learning to walk — determination that you’re going to try something, and if it fails, you’ll get up and try again.

Don’t get the wrong impression. I don’t think leaders have to have all the answers before they get started. The close of Deborah Reidy’s Reluctant Leaders paper makes a great point:

Finally, remember that leadership often begins with an uneasiness, a vague, unarticulated sense that things are not quite right but no idea what would be right or how to bring it about. As Ron Heifetz writes, ‘One may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.’

It’s a myth that you have to have all the answers, that you have to have it all together, that you have to have the complete package before you lead. Frankly, it’s an outright lie. The best thing for a young leader is to get in the game. You won’t develop leadership abilities in a vacuum, and you probably won’t come up with the answers until you start trying.

Anyone who is willing to combine a good question with a determination to try until they succeed is going to change the world. Ask any of the Gen-X CEOs of Google, YouTube, eBay or Amazon. Did any of them hit gold on their first attempt? Malcolm Gladwell broke down that misperception in Outliers. Kings don’t simply happen; it takes hard work to be king.

I was meeting with a friend recently in Atlanta when he took control of the conversation with a great question. Paul is the CEO of a small mission organization, and I get together with him every time I’m in town. I appreciate his wisdom and experience, and our conversations seem to be mutually beneficial, though I’m quite sure I get more out of it than he does. Anyway, the last time we met, he suddenly asked me, “What can I do for you?”

I sure wasn’t expecting the question, but I won’t say I wasn’t prepared. I knew I had an opportunity, so I asked him if he would be willing to be a mentor. Jim Collins suggests that every leader should have a “personal board of directors,” and I wanted Paul to be among that small group. To tell you the truth, I don’t know what it means or how it works, but he had some ideas. We’re going to talk monthly by phone in addition to our face to face visits.

I love that question. Of course, it’s not a new question. I skimmed Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez book a while ago and missed it. Only recently did I became aware that he recommends that question. Whenever he prays that God would expand his territory, he turns and asks the person immediately behind him, “What can I do for you?” It always leads to a ministry opportunity.

But it’s even older than that. Nehemiah had just been wrecked by news from Judea that Jerusalem was still lying in ruins. He prayed for days that God would do something and that the king would be favorable to him. When he finally got an opportunity to tell the king his heart, Artaxerxes responded with that question. Nehemiah was ready with a request.

I think that question is the key to mentoring. It opens the door between established leaders and rising leaders. It gets past the walls we set up to protect ourselves. It begins the unloading of wisdom and resources between the generations. There are a large number of established leaders who are willing to be mentors but don’t know how to get started. And young leaders who would love a mentor. Often the initiative comes from the latter, and that’s probably appropriate; I can’t imagine someone saying, “I’d like to mentor you.”

Setting up a mentoring relationship is like a dance. Someone has to take the first step. That question lowers the guard and starts the dialogue.

What can I do for you?