The Best Question I've Ever Been Asked

Many people have "pivot points" in life--moments when their perspectives dramatically change direction. Often these pivot points are created by a single, simple idea. So it was with me. Years ago I found myself in a very difficult situation as a follower. I was frustrated, even disgusted by my boss's behavior. I was suffering because of his selfishness, lack of willingness to take responsibility for his promises, and deceit. The problems were clear and undeniable. I was angry and felt more than justified in my anger.

Then a wise and accomplished friend asked me perhaps the best question I've ever been asked:

"If you had your boss's parents, cultural upbringing, abilities, skills, education, and life experiences, what makes you think you would operate any differently than he does?"

It was a brilliant question. It didn't fight with me over the facts of the situation. It didn't attempt to justify the deception and betrayal I had experienced. It didn't try to logically talk me out of feeling that I'd been wronged. It simply exposed ugliness and a lack of development within me. It was as if the question mark at the end of the sentence had been followed up by a big, red exclamation point.

I'd never been so stopped in my tracks in my life. I was quiet. I had no good response...except silent shame. In the midst of my convictions about my boss's behavior, I had failed to see how his overall background had shaped him. I too had been shaped by my own background, a background that my friend pointed out had been very blessed indeed.

Before that question, I was blind to my judgment, arrogance, and lack of empathy. The words "I would never do what he's doing" never actually came out of my mouth, but my astute friend could smell that attitude it all over me.

I've never forgotten the moment I was asked that question. In my better moments today, when I feel similar indignation start to rise up within me, I ask myself that question. Unfortunately, my better moments are less frequent than I desire. Nonetheless, the lesson I learned that day is critical to me and all leaders who seek to become people worth following.

Judgment, arrogance, and a lack of empathy: these qualities have never made leaders exceptional. These qualities have never defined the type of people we want to follow. These qualities have never brought out the very best in those we lead. And they never will.

Share Your Thoughts:Have you ever found a less-than-ideal character quality within you that was holding back your effectiveness as a leader? If so, what was it and what did you do about it? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.