Breaking Free from Limited Thinking

Servant leadership is hard. The challenges are great, and those we lead are looking to us to go out front and point the way. Far too often, however, limited thinking locks great ideas within us, both leaders and followers alike. We latch onto false assumptions and end up trapped inside mental and emotional closets that prevent powerful action and great results. The servant-leader asks lock-breaking questions, listens attentively, and facilitates dialogue. The end result is empowered solutions we create together. In a nutshell, servant-leaders help set us free to think powerfully in order to achieve the great purpose we share in common.

Limited thinking tends to come in three forms: problems vs. outcomes; reactivity vs. creativity, and deficits vs. assets.

  • Problem versus Outcome Focus.

When faced with obstacles we can choose to fixate on what is wrong – What’s not working? What don’t we want? What do we wish to avoid? When all our questions are about  problems, we become anxious and overwhelmed. This vicious cycle compounds the original problem, and can create new, even more daunting problems.

When we choose  to ask questions about our desired outcomes, we begin to focus on what is right – What’s working? What do we want?  What will we embrace? This generates a virtuous cycle of aspiration and goal-driven behavior. Outcome-focused thinking gives us a much better chance of solving the original problem, and can often lead to solutions for other, related problems. The servant-leader chooses to perceive and feel in terms of what we do want to bring to life, and that creates a culture focused on the future we hope for.

  • Reactive versus Creative Orientation.

When faced with adversity, we can choose to let circumstances dominate us, controlling how we perceive the situation. Feeling backed into a corner, we fall into a reactive stance. In that reactivity, we lash out from our feelings of powerlessness. People get hurt as a result, and the circumstances still have control over us.

Instead, we can choose to ask questions about what really matters most. By orienting around our driving passion, we reclaim our power to get out in front of circumstances. We respond creatively, and begin to shape our perception of the world in light our goals. It’s the job of the servant-leader to show the way toward a culture oriented around creativity and innovation.

  • Deficit-based Thinking versus Asset-based Thinking.

Limited thinking can draw all our attention to deficits – What’s missing? Where are we weak? What are the barriers, the disconnections, the opposition? When we fixate on deficits, our thinking brain seizes up and our emotional brains kick in with a flood of hormones fueling fight, flight, or freeze reactions. People stuck in deficit-based thinking can’t see possibilities, become disoriented, lack confidence, and ultimately lose hope.

When we  choose to  ask questions about assets, new horizons emerge – Here’s what we do  have, these are our strengths, there are bridges, connections, and  alliances  we can tap into that will create new opportunities for action. When we go first into asset-based thinking, we jump-start our cognitive powers. In asset mode, our thinking expands, we gain clarity and energy, we grow in confidence, and we foster hopefulness. The servant-leader chooses to lead with questions that build up a rich stockpile of assets. Armed with these resources, we can addresses legitimate deficit questions from a position of strength and power.

Of course, we do experience deficits, we are sometimes reactive, and we do face real problems. Servant-leaders are not Pollyannas wearing rose-tinted glasses; this isn’t about naive positivity. The servant-leader gives these very real challenges their proper due, but chooses not to start, stay, or stop with negative thought patterns. It’s the servant-leader’s role to coach people toward outcome focus, creative orientation, and asset-based thinking. The most powerful tool is to ask liberating questions that break the lock of limited thinking and open the door that frees the mind to think in new ways.

Here are some specific door-opening questions you can use to help create a thinking environment.

  • Beginning with a shared end in mind, what do we want, personally and for our organization? What do we see as the desired future, and what will we commit to do to bring it about?


  • How will the world be different tomorrow as a result of what we do today? What can others do to help us make this difference?


  • What is going well? Where are we free? What do we need to start, accelerate, or increase?


Building on desired outcomes, a creative outlook, and an inventory of our assets and strengths, we can now ask:

  • What’s not going as well as it could? Where are we stuck? What needs to decrease, slow down, or come to a graceful end?


Stepping back from these work-focused questions, here are some queries that push us to examine our lives more fully:

  • What few things are we engaged in that are most life giving? What would result from more of these?


  • What  few things do we need to do to increase this energy boost? Are we willing to start doing these few things right now?


  • What one thing are we tolerating that is most life sapping? What would it look like if we were no longer tolerating it? Are we willing to stop doing that one thing right now?


Notice that servant-leaders ask far more questions in a positive way rather than coming at the very same situation in a negative way. What’s your proportion of positively versus negatively framed questions? Take stock and work toward at least a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative, and always begin and dwell with questions that lead with outcomes, assets, and what really matters most.

Servant-leaders ask great questions and listen for great answers. Try putting some of these questions to work for you and your team. Share your results here, and round out these suggestions with your own favorite lock-breaking questions.


(Adapted from Your Life as Art by Robert Fritz;
Change the Way You See Everything Through Asset Based Thinking
by Kathryn Cramer and Hank Wasiak.)

The Serving Way, copyright © 2019, Chris Thyberg.

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