The Questions Great Leaders Ask

Today's blog will both start and end with questions. First, our starting questions: Question #1:--When you-know-what hits the fan, what do you find yourself thinking about first: (a) How I’m not to blame or how I’m a victim of the situation. (b) How I contributed to the situation.

Question #2--When you-know-what hits the fan, what do you find yourself thinking about most: (a) How I’m not to blame or how I’m a victim of the situation. (b) How I contributed to the situation.

If you’re a leader and either of your answers above is (a), we need to talk. If the person you follow would answer (a) to either of questions above, we also need to talk…because what you’re about to read will likely be cathartic.

Let’s Talk

Let’s be frank: being wrong is hard. I’ve never met a leader (or person, for that matter) who doesn’t struggle, at least a little bit, with being wrong. Being wrong attacks our egos. Being wrong feeds our insecurities. For those who believe that their value as a person is 100% tied to their ability to achieve, being wrong is a catastrophic event.

Psychologically, this is rather simple—being wrong is threatening. So the vast majority of us (trending toward 100%) resist it. We make excuses. We conjure up—often unconsciously—elegant explanations for how we are completely blameless. We tell ourselves that we are misunderstood. Sometimes we are downright defensive. And in the moments when we miraculously accept responsibility for our contributions to problems, we’re fond of telling ourselves that our piece of the problem was not nearly as damaging as what others contributed to it.

Though all of this is understandable, none of it is becoming of great leadership. Great leaders are inwardly sound. They have the courage and personal security to admit they are wrong. They are people who react to problems by first looking to see how they contributed to the problems. They talk about their errors. They admit to them. Some even ask for forgiveness from those around them when the nature and significance of the error deems it appropriate. (I’m talking about behind-closed-doors requests for forgiveness. Not the kind of public requests for forgiveness we often see from politicians and religious leaders; the kind that seem to be more about celebrating that the leader is asking for forgiveness than admitting fault and working to make things right.)

If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again

Just this week I encountered a leader, Jeremy, who didn’t want to own his predicament. He was being accused of breaking trust with a team he was leading. He saw himself as the victim of someone else’s shortcomings…at least at first.

It took Jeremy about 24 hours to get into an emotional state where he could begin to sincerely investigate how he had contributed to the problem. After 36 hours, and through the counsel of wise outsiders, he saw what he had done. It was a sin of omission; not something he’d done wrong, but something that he had failed to do proactively that had significantly contributed to the problem. Jeremy eventually concluded, in opposition to his initial analyses, that he was the primary problem in the situation.

Questions That Make Leaders Great

Why does any of this matter? How does admitting our flaws impact our effectiveness as leaders? There are two significant ways.

(1) They help you build a learning culture. When we admit fault, we make it OK for others to do the same. When we model that errors can be discussed, we foster teams and cultures around us where improvement, rather than self-protection through blaming others, is the norm. Such cultures in their best forms become that which is the envy of the organizational world: learning cultures. These are places where marketplace advantage comes from perpetual, light-speed improvement.

(2) They increase relational connection and follower engagement. When we admit fault, we create the opportunity to build stronger relationships within the teams we lead. This happens as accepting fault and making amends endears people to one another. It is a relational connector. This not only has a ‘feel good’ effect, but it improves follower engagement which leads to better results. (Many of studies have proven the linkage between engagement and results. Here’s a link to a combination of 263 studies that shows just that: Employee Engagement Drives Results.)

"What part of this situation do I need to own?" "What did I do -- or not do -- that contributed to this problem?" "What could I have done differently to help avoid this circumstance?"

From the front line to the board room, when you-know-what hits the fan, these are the questions that great leaders quickly and openly ask themselves.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you followed a leader who sincerely looked at their own errors first when they encountered problems? What were the results of following such a leader?  We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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