Leaders must ask questions. In fact, asking the right questions is an essential skill to being an effective leader. Parallel to that skill is the ability to own the answer.
Let me illustrate what I mean. In an organization in which I was the leader, we needed to make a decision that would affect the future state of our work. The one decision that was about to be made would determine our goal for the next few years, what work we would embark upon, the systems we would need, and who we would recruit into leadership. With all of that in mind, I began to gather information that would facilitate the process of making the decision. In the process, I needed to ask one of the key members of the organization about their perspective on the potential change. His response was simple: “Do you really want to know my opinion?”
I suspect that many of us have either heard that response, gave that response, or have wanted to give that response.
In leadership, we must ask the critical questions that moves the organization forward. But we must also be willing to own the answers that we are given to those critical questions. So how can that happen?
Never surround yourself with “yes men.” It is a basic premise of leadership to which we should often be reminded. Sycophants who lurk behind us like Igor saying “yes, master” to our every whim do not help us, themselves, or the organization. The type of employee, follower, or member of the organization that agrees with everything you do with such speed will eventually be a drain on the work.
Beware of the hidden “yes men.” Carefully guard against the organizational members who always, in the end, agree with you. We tend to recruit people who think like us, work like us, and see life like us. It is natural because we are trying to build an organization and lead it toward a goal. Therefore, we need commonality of thought. But this type of employee can be a hidden “yes man” and they are just as dangerous. You don’t want an Igor, but you also don’t want a clone.
Periodically recruit a rogue. Every now and again, you need to recruit someone into the organization that aspires to the same dream but will be the wild horse that you must constantly reign in. They will talk to you in ways that others will not. They will push you to go faster, pull you into unsafe territory, and make you nervous on most days. But they are often necessary. You can often guess what the answer will be to most questions from most team members… but not from this one. It is good to have an outlier on the team.
Give permission for people to disagree with you. Actively tell your team that disagreement is expected. Debate can be healthy as long as the goal of the organization is preserved. Once we’ve determined what must be accomplished, then all bets are off in terms of how we get there. The discussions that must happen need to be passionate. There is a verse in the Bible that says, “Iron sharpens iron, and one many sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17, HCSB). It is the idea that sparks are going to fly and friction is going to happen. When we ask critical questions, expect critically thought through answers. The answer might even sting a bit, but if you have recruited well, then it will be worth it.
Know how to process an answer that runs contrary to your expectations. When you eventually receive an answer that runs counter to what you hoped to hear, learn what to do with it. It could go something like this: Shock, horror, anger, outburst, discord, communication blackout, retaliation, and refusal to change your mind. Or you could have a different approach. Reception, discussion, reflect, consider options, gratefulness, and discovery.
Owning the unexpected answers from our team gives us options. It allows us to discover new paths to the common goals we hold together. The weak leader will rebel against anything they did not think of first. The strong leader learns the power held within a group of like-minded teammates. Today, ask the hard questions and be ready to own the unexpected answers.