“What do YOU think?” — Tapping Leadership Within

Good questions work on us; we don’t work on them.
Peter Block, The Answer to How is Yes: Acting On What Matters


There you are, the team leader, trapped in what seems like torture by meeting – meandering monologues, sullen silence, and not-so-sneak peeks at cell phones and tablets. You find yourself waiting for folks to stop talking so that you can take over. Suddenly, someone asks you a question and you notice that as you were impatiently waiting your turn, you had stopped listening. Instead, you’ve been talking to yourself in your own head. Even more to the point, others have noticed that you’re really there only when you’ve got the floor.

Every leader has had exchanges with colleagues that weren’t really give-and-take at all. This bad habit is often justified as follows: “I’m the leader, and it’s up to me to have the answers. Without me at the helm, this meeting, in fact, the whole enterprise will drift onto the rocks!”

It’s an easy trap to fall into, being an expert teller rather than a thinking partner, a lecturer rather than a coach. And it’s usually based on the well-intentioned, but false, premise that the leader needs to be a hero and final authority, rather than a servant and guide.

The reality, however, is that thinking powerfully is caught, not taught. We infect those around us to become contributing thought partners by demonstrating great listening, which is the essential tool in the servant leader’s toolkit. After all, our true job as leaders is to ignite the best possible thinking throughout the organization, to stir people’s hearts with shared vision, mission, and values, and then channel this power into doing great work.

Contrast the numbing meeting above with what Nancy Kline, in her book, A Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind, calls a “thinking environment.” People know that are respected, they’re free from fear, competition, no one has a hidden agenda, and everyone is building on each others’ insights in pursuit of mutual purpose. Wow! Such meetings sure feel good, and not just for the results they produce, but also for the relationships they nourish.

Here are five actions to practice as you work to create thinking environments that tap into the leadership already residing in your people.


1. Give your full attention –

Being fully engaged is the starting point for effective listening. Put aside distractions and be 100% present, show genuine interest with eye contact and body language, respect your thinking partners, and let them talk without interruption. You really do have a profound effect on others based on how you show up. If good thinking is your aim, your undivided and open-minded attention is the best way to produce it.

Your task as the leader is to engage the introverts in the group, gently steer the extroverts away from dominating the conversation, and establish the notion that everyone is a thinker. One of the best ways to encourage full attention is to establish rules of engagement, such as:

  • All devices down and stowed. There will be plenty of breaks for jacking back in for important emails, voice messages, and texts.


  • Only one person speaks at a time, for a set amount of time, and without interruption. Everyone speaks just once before getting to speak again. Then the floor is open for free and orderly exchange.


2. Ask penetrating questions –

Questions ignite thinking better than statements or commands. But some questions are better fire-starters than others. The best questions reframe the situation in order to break through limiting assumptions that are holding us back. It takes time and practice to accurately identify such power-robbing assumptions, which usually go unspoken, and frequently are excuses for not acting. Be patient and persistent, with each assumption ask, “Why do we think that?” to get down to the root premise. Lead the way by starting with your own assumptions.

Here’s an example of questions from my friend Bob Tiede that flip the usual way we go about brainstorming:

  • What things can we do in a way that will guarantee failure?


  • In light of these failure-factors, what do we need to do in order to succeed?


3. Establish reciprocity –

Yes, you are the leader, you do have expertise, and significant responsibility has been placed on your shoulders. If you are a servant leader, you’ve also earned authority through persuasion and influence, not just position. To stimulate others to do their best thinking, however, people need to know that they are equals in the thinking process. Too often we send the message that only select people are thinkers. We give unspoken permission to some to dominate and for others to withdraw. Thinking environments require that everyone have an equal voice, that their ideas will receive the same level of attention as everyone else’s, and that they will be treated as peers and not underlings.

We servant leaders need to be asking ourselves all the time:

  • What I am doing, right now in this conversation, to develop these folks as leaders?


  • Am I shifting my power over them for power with them in pursuit of our shared goals?


4. Put people at ease

To stay in the moment and give our best attention, we need to intentionally resist the temptation to hit the panic button. Calm presence and careful consideration create the best conditions for thinking well. Ease is not the opposite of urgency. But frantic speed is often the enemy of clarity. Yes, there are times when we have to decide quickly and act decisively. The demand for results can sometimes bump up against the desire to build relationships. Situations are not always easy, and there will be conflict. However, it is possible to dial down the adrenaline, and forge commitments out of healthy conflict. You set the context in which we give each other time and space to generate lots of ideas and then sharpen them into great ideas, without undue pressure to hurry the process.

Two simple actions can go a long way to helping everyone gain and keep their composure:

  • Send an agenda in advance, and reaffirm it at the start of the meeting. Letting your people prepare for upcoming conversations gives them power and releases anxiety.


  • Take time to re-invest in relationships with questions that build personal connections, especially after you’ve all had to push hard for results.


5. Establish unity while honoring diversity –

One of the great challenges for a servant leader is to build cohesion while welcoming differences. When we balance shared perspective with distinct points of view, we greatly increase the chance of wide-angle, cutting-edge thinking. Without that balance, we can fall apart or fall into groupthink. Each of us is different in the unique and beautiful convergence of strengths and gifts, experiences and aspirations that we bring to the thinking process. What unite us are the vision, mission, and values that drive our organizations, and the truth that we all need each other’s contributions if we are to succeed and flourish.

You can take the lead here:

  • Invest in using assessment tools and followup coaching to increase awareness strengths and motivations in yourself and your team. Discuss privately their results with each team member, convene an open meeting to share each other’s profiles, starting with yours, and whenever possible build teams with complementary talents and chemistry.


  • Make your organization a safe place for people to grow into themselves The people you lead need to know that there will be no reprisal for thinking differently from the rest of the group, as long as they are vision-, mission-, and values-aligned with what defines the distinctive benefits your organization brings to your stakeholders and the world.


Be the Lead Thinking Partner

We servant leaders are at our best when we believe that all our followers already possess within themselves the resources to solve their problems. Our followers are at their best when we provide prompts that empower them to clarify, synthesize, and articulate the answers to their own questions.

Start right now; ask your people directly, “What do you think”:

  • Is your work here meaningful, and what makes it so (or doesn’t)?


  • What sets us apart from the competition in terms of results and relationships?


  • How we will spur each other on to reach our great purpose?


And always follow up with “Why?”

Equip folks to think well, and give them freedom to implement the actions that flow from their best thinking. Then, encourage and celebrate the great things that happen when people lead themselves from within!

(Copyright © 2019 —  The Serving Way — Chris Thyberg.)


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