Monday, October 23, 2006


A key talent of outstanding leaders is the ability to be led. As Irwin Federman says, "Leaders listen, take advice, lose arguments, and follow." Ben Franklin said, "He who cannot obey, cannot command."

This is often difficult for leaders. After all, you have achieved a position of leadership because you have known the right answers most of the time. But promotion eventually brings you to a place where the level of complexity and responsibility is unfamiliar. This new territory requires a leader to rely on the skills and competencies of others. No one is as smart as everyone.

Sometimes you will get the insights you need from those above you (managers), sometimes you will get the insights you need from those around you (colleagues), often you will get the insights you need from those under you (subordinates). Studies show that most innovations do not come from ideas generated by leaders, but by followers. To gain the insights you need, you will need to develop what Peter Senge calls the ability to "balance advocacy with inquiry." This is the ability to hold a position, while at the same time holding it loosely. (F. Scott Fitzgerald said the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas at the same time and still be able to function.)

The humility required to "balance advocacy with inquiry" typically brings secondary benefits beside giving you better answers. It creates a better environment, with more team unity, trust and cohesion. People love to be asked their opinion. They feel valued when they are included. Inquiry also keeps the leader from becoming relationally isolated. As Chris Argyris says in Overcoming Organizational Defenses, “Loneliness at the top is a product of a reciprocal isolating dynamic of aloofness between subordinates and the executive.”

Humility is essential to a synergistic work environment. Consider how the dots connect in Philippians 2:1-3:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

A tell-tale for pride is an unwillingness to ask for help or advice. When was the last time you said to those on your team, “I don’t know. What do you think we should do?”

Daniel Boorstin, the Librarian for Congress, gives a lecture about amateurs and professionals. "The leader," he said, "is by definition an amateur - open to new vistas that training precludes from the professional."

Something I’ve said to reinforce the idea that the best ideas may be “below” you: “There’s not much oxygen at the top of the mountain. The oxygen is down in the valley where the people live.”

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