My Chat with Don About His Leadership Questions

Recently I was on the phone with a university president, named Don. We met a few years ago and struck up a bit of a relationship. We’re both keenly interested in studying leadership. In fact, he’s been blogging about the topic for several years. Periodically, we like to schedule time to talk by phone…without agenda…just to see where the discussion might lead.

Each time, I hang up the phone feeling energized and enriched. It’s so wonderful to have authentically curious conversations with no attempt to persuade the other person to some belief or action.

Periodically, you and I have had similar interesting exchanges—in one form or another—which prompted me to share with you a quick “transcript” of my chat with this university president.

DON: “While driving into work this morning, knowing we’d be talking, I asked myself what questions were on my mind about my own leadership. I came up with two.”

GARY: “Great. Lay ‘em on me!”

DON: “How can I assure I’m a leader who’s not missing anything?”

GARY: “Three responses come immediately to mind:

  1. First, recognize the way you’ve articulated the question—from the negative, assuming some gap. No leader (no PERSON) can be expected to know everything. There’s just too much, changing too quickly, with too much complexity. I suggest you reframe your question (and your thinking) from the deficit (what I’m missing) to the affirmative (all the people around me who see what I can’t see). In the “simple” act of reframing from the deficit, you’ll significantly increase your native creativity. While problem-solving approaches spur creativity, the science of human flourishing routinely substantiates that the positive exploration of possibility unleashes even more creativity and innovation. Perhaps the revised question is something like: ‘How can I foster a network around me that is keenly attuned to the environment, feels supported to act, and is adaptive?’”
  2. Second, remember the 5:1 ratio. Ask five open-ended, generative questions for each statement you make or directive you give. Why? You’re continually developing capacity and deepening commitment. That comes from ownership and personal investment. Questions elicit that far better than statements or directives. Allow each person’s leadership ability to shine. Invite it through questions. These aren’t canned questions where you’re listening for who is “right.” They’re questions born of natural curiosity. You both become learners by your asking questions for which there may not be an immediate answer. Collectively, you’re going to a new level…building capacity. If these questions are appreciative (meaning you’re expressing gratitude for the best of what already is AND wanting to see it grow in value), you’re going to spur some pretty helpful discussion.
  3. Third, wander widely. Take a walk. Get out of your office and the usual meeting rooms. Reinforced by the two suggestions above, see the work through the eyes of people doing very different jobs throughout the organization. DON said: “I thought you said, ‘wonder widely.’ GARY said: “I like that just as much…perhaps more! It’s back to curiosity and exploring what’s possible. The quicker you can get to prototyping new ideas, the faster the breakthroughs and the greater the impact.”

DON: How do I ensure the institution’s path forward is not dependent upon me as the leader?”

GARY: “It never has been. Please understand, I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I am, however, gently trying to challenge the longstanding myth of the charismatic leader who single handedly leads people to the promised land. We both know of situations where those dynamics played out, but the growing complexity, demand for collaborative response, and the required speed of action means that an organization dependent upon a single leader is deeply vulnerable. If the leaders is even unconsciously acting in a way that reinforces these dynamics, s/he is doing the institution a disservice. Plus, I’ve seen that leadership tightrope-walk absolutely consume individual leaders who feel increasingly exposed. Let’s stop the charade. It’s not really about you.”

Another way of limiting leader dependence is in building adaptive capacity throughout the organization. How? One sure way is to listen to the conversations taking place around you (which can happen if you’re wandering [wondering?] widely). The surest signal I find of a vision or plan being truly alive in an organization is not just the degree to which it has been shared—but how deeply held it is. If the plan (or vision) is coming up in conversations throughout the organization, you’ll know it’s alive and is likely a lens through which people look to make decisions. If it’s just a nice webpage or hallway poster, don’t hold your breath. That means that your whole approach to planning/visioning has got to be a “whole system” approach. The diversity of perspectives makes it real, keeps it alive, and provides the scaffolding for future decisions during implementation—little of which should have to be micro-managed by the leader.”


Maybe you have a couple questions on your mind, too? If so, lemme hear from you. As I’ve learned from our past exchanges, each of us has something to teach and to learn.

Until next time.