We were holding a class on positive leadership. I was exploring the power of inquiry. During a break, an executive approached me and said that the managers reporting to him do not want him to ask questions. They want him to tell them what to do. This executive asked me for guidance; he was inviting me into the expert role. He wanted me to tell him what to do. While I was tempted to take on the expert role, I knew better. Instead of responding, I asked questions that challenged his assumptions.
This process caused his story to deepen. He eventually shared his belief that the real reason his managers come to him asking for directions is that is makes their life easier. When in conflict with peers they can say, “The boss told me to do it this way?”
I asked him: “Is that the result you want to create?” He found the question odd. I asked if his managers were acting as leaders. Leaders do not avoid conflict. They surface conflict and transform it into collaboration. He seemed to find this thought electrifying. The executive concluded that conflict avoidance among his managers was not the result he wanted to create.
I suggested that he play the role of one of his managers and I would be him. As our simulated discussion unfolded, I kept asking him what result he wanted to create. He resisted answering and I became more insistent.
Suddenly the roleplaying executive had an insight. He decided the manager he was representing could derive his own best strategy. He (the executive) could then go with the manager and meet with the entire group, have the manager share his own strategy, and then invite the group of managers into an authentic discussion of the strategy. In doing this, the executive could surface the feared conflict, promote collective learning, and allow a new strategy to evolve.
Once the group learned to elevate and transform conflict in this fashion, the group could learn to function at this higher level without the executive present. Over time, he could nurture the development of this unusual capacity.
My associate found this new possibility exciting. He could imagine himself experiment with this new strategy, and he was anxious to try.
Had I responded to his initial invitation to be the expert, the conversation would have produced a different outcome. I would have given him a concept for which he would have had little use. By challenging him and thus allowing him to become my teacher, we became equals engaged in the process of co-creation. What emerged was a new possible future.
There are endless incentives that drive us into the expert role. People come to us expecting us to tell them what to do. Telling them rewards our ego. It is therefore difficult to shift. We love knowing and telling even if it is not effective. We are slow to create relationships of learning. Normal social and organizational incentives hinder us from empowering other people.
One scientifically confirmed characteristic of transformational leaders is “intellectual stimulation.” This term refers to leaders challenging the conventional assumptions of the people around them. They honor and develop the agency of the other. They ask questions that make people think and feel, to know themselves, to feel what others feel, to see what is real and what is possible in a given context.
What result do you want to create? The question invites others out of the passive state. It invites them to increase their own awareness, embrace their own power, and choose their own strategy. When we resist the expert role, we begin to turn followers into leaders and we turn the organization positive.
- How many of our managers are empowered leaders?
- How much time do we spend in the expert role?
- How much time do we spend protecting agency, challenging assumptions, and co-creating awareness?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?