vendredi 15 décembre 2006

questions leaders need to ask themselves

prepare to go forth and ask questions of
others, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Don’t skip
this step because if you do, the questions you ask others will
ring false. Leaders who have decided to go beneath the sur-
face of their relationships with the people they lead need to
start by being honest with themselves.
A client asked me when I thought they should start train-
ing people for leadership positions. “What are you doing
now?” I asked innocently. “We don’t have any formal lead-
ership training right now,” she replied without any trace of
concern. I believe that most of us agree that leadership is both an
art and a science. Unfortunately, most organizations that promote
people into leadership positions, like hers, teach neither.
Maybe that’s what happened to you. You were promoted to a
position that required you to supervise others because you were
good at doing the tasks they do. You learned leadership by trial and
One who never asks either
knows everything or nothing.
—Malcom Forbes, American publisher
error, finding yourself doing and saying the things your bosses did
and said to you. The very things that, when they were done to you,
made you promise yourself you’d never do to anyone else. You’re
reading this book because you have lived with the uncomfortable
feeling that you’re not living up to your potential as a leader. Good
for you. So here’s your first assignment. Read through this chapter
and answer the questions yourself. It will take some time, but there
will be an enormous payoff for your efforts.
What does leadership mean?
Believe it or not, there isn’t a right or wrong answer to this ques-
tion. Leadership takes on different meanings depending on the
person who leads and the people being led. On any given day, lead-
ership can mean teaching, coaching, assigning, cheerleading,
counseling, guiding, correcting, protecting, explaining, and observ-
ing. Leadership asks you to fill out forms, chair meetings, hold
hands, explain decisions, think about the future, and resolve con-
flict. None of these actions or tasks will happen discretely; usually
they’ll happen all at once. If you thought becoming the boss would
give you more control of your time and tasks, think again. Like the
new entrepreneur, you’ll discover that you have less control over
your daily activities as you work to help and support the people
you lead.
The trap I see new leaders fall into most often is the inability to
see that their work has fundamentally changed. Since leaders are
typically promoted because of their technical skills in an area—they
were really good at dealing with customers so they were promoted
to lead others who interact with customers—it is predictable that the
new leader will continue to practice the skills that got them the
promotion rather than understand that they have a whole new skill
set to develop. No one has explained that their primary responsi-
bility has shifted from doing to helping others do.
Since so few organizations provide the forum for discussing and
learning leadership skills, you’re going to have to have the discus-
sion with and for yourself. Start by asking yourself what leadership
means. Review your opinions of those who led you in the past. What
did you admire about their behaviors? What behaviors did they
exhibit that actually got in the way of your doing your job?
Identify the best leader you know inside your organization and
invite them to lunch. Ask them to describe their view of leadership
and how they developed it. Then, seek the company of a leader you
admire outside your organization and ask them the same questions.
Compare the responses. You might be surprised by how much the
culture of an organization influences perceptions about leadership.
If you have the time and opportunity, have this same discussion with
a few additional leaders. But, make sure you do at least two.
After your research is done, go back to the original question,
What does leadership mean? and answer it for yourself. This is a
pencil and paper answer. Write your own definition of leadership
and post it where you can see in it your office, put it on the back
of one of your business cards and carry it in your wallet, and make
it the screensaver on your computer. Just don’t chisel it into stone.
As you grow into your role as a leader, you’ll probably want to
revise your definition. Not because your first answer was wrong,
but because your later answers will be better for the experience
you’ve gained.
2. How do you feel about being a leader?
When you got the message that you were being promoted into a
leadership position, I’d guess you were excited. Promotions usually
mean more prestige, more opportunities, and more money. People
congratulate you, offer to buy you lunch, and your picture appears
in the company newsletter. Good news all the way around.
Then there’s the reality. Tasks are dumped on your desk with lit-
tle or no explanation attached. People are clamoring for your time
and attention. Meetings on subjects you’ve never heard of fill your
schedule. Those who report to you expect you to solve their prob-
lems, resolve their conflicts, and even deliver feedback messages
they’re too afraid to deliver themselves. It’s time to think about
your feelings.
Leadership is more than a skill set. Real leadership is a combi-
nation of well-honed skills combined with an open and gracious
spirit. How you feel about being a leader will always influence how
you act as a leader. People who believe that leadership is their right,
who believe that their title demands the respect of others, or who
believe that leaders should always have the final say are carrying feel-
ings about leadership that will constantly get in the way of their
effectiveness as a leader. Closemindedness is usually a result of an
unwillingness to explore the feeling side of an issue. How are you at
exploring your feelings about being a leader?
It’s perfectly okay to have conflicting emotions about being a
leader. Excitement mixed with apprehension. Confidence colored by
fear. Certainty alongside doubt. Pride with anger. It’s not about
either/or, it’s about and. Leaders who identify all the emotions that
can go along with leadership, study the full range of those emotions,
and learn to tap into the appropriate emotion for the right situation
are ahead of the game. Leaders who try to convince themselves that
dealing with emotions (their own as well as those of others) isn’t part
of their job are just kidding themselves.
So, how do you feel about being a leader? Like the previous ques-
tion, your answer to this question will change with time and expe-
rience. In this case, feelings being what they are, your answer might
be different from one minute to the next. That’s not the big prob-
lem. Understanding how your feelings at any given time are influ-
encing your behavior is one of the greatest challenges of leadership.
Without an honest, routine check of your feelings about leadership,
you shortchange yourself as well as the people who follow you.
3. What do you want to be remembered for?
When my daughter, Miriam, went to college in Milwaukee, she
worked at a bakery. Vann’s Pastry Shop was legendary for its spe-
cialty cakes, Danish pastries, and bread. When Mr. Vann died, his
obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel started with the follow-
ing: “Calling Bob Vann a baker would be like calling Frank Lloyd
Wright an architect.” When you die and someone puts their fin-
gers on a keyboard, ready to write about you as a leader, what do
you hope they’ll type?
There is a philosophy that says you should always start with the
end in mind. An obituary is definitely an end, and I’m certainly not
suggesting that it’s the end you need to have in mind in order to
answer this question. But what about asking yourself, “When I move
to another position, what do I want my team to say about me as a
leader? What do I want to be remembered for?”
Create a list of characteristics you admire in a leader. The combi-
nations are endless. Compassionate and a great listener. Creative and
fair-minded. Uplifting and supportive. Enthusiastic and knowledge-
When you stop learning, stop
listening, stop looking and ask-
ing questions, always new ques-
tions, then it is time to die.
—Lillian Smith, American author
able. After you’ve identified at least fifteen characteristics, highlight
five of them. Are these the five you’d be happy to have people use to
describe you? Keep working your list until you’re convinced that you
have the five you believe are the cornerstones of your leadership style.
Now, think of your leadership actions over the last week. Did you
devote your time to these behaviors? If this had been your last week
as a leader for this team, how would they describe your final days as
their leader? It isn’t enough to identify, think about, or even talk
about the things you want to be remembered for. It’s only how you
act that will count in the end.
Mr. Vann was a baker, but he was so much more than that. I asked
Miriam what she remembered about him after we read the obituary.
She said he taught her that discipline is required to produce a con-
sistently superior product, that working as a team can be fun, and
that finding out what you are good at is important in life and work.
A very nice legacy for any leader.
4. Are you happy?
Let me admit it right up front—this is a bias. I believe that funda-
mentally unhappy people make poor leaders. This statement might
cause you to pause. If we were having a conversation, I’d be able to
see your reaction in your eyes, and I’d repeat myself for emphasis.
So let me repeat. I believe that fundamentally unhappy people make
poor leaders.
In an age of cynicism, the importance of happiness as a key part
of the human condition gets lost or overlooked. Young children are
envied for their happiness, but it is credited to their ignorance of the
world’s harsh realities. “It’s easy for them,” we say. “They don’t have
a care in the world. Oh, to be like that again. I know too much to
go around happy all the time.” I’m willing to admit that there is
some truth in that statement. Sometimes ignorance makes it easier
to be happy, but the opposite isn’t true. You don’t have to be igno-
rant in order to be happy. What so many people seem to lose sight
of is that happiness, much like ignorance, isn’t a state, it is a choice.
If you are ignorant, you can choose to get smarter. If you are
unhappy, you can choose to become happy. Choosing happiness
doesn’t mean that you banish all concerns and troubles. Happiness
simply means that you understand all the sides of an issue, good and
bad, and choose to be happy anyway.
What, you may be asking, does this have to do with leadership?
Everything, I think. Happiness is born from optimism. Optimism is
embedded in beliefs such as “Problems can be solved,” “Good ulti-
mately triumphs over evil,” and “Joy is a birthright of all individu-
als.” Without an underlying positive belief system, leadership rings
hollow. You cannot inspire people to try again if you don’t really
believe that success is possible. You can’t comfort people during
tough times if you don’t believe that tough times pass. You can’t lead
if you don’t have faith in an uncertain future.
So, are you happy? Don’t worry if your answer is no. You can
choose a different answer when you ask yourself the question again,
and then get to work to make your answer true. The people around
you will be glad you gave this question a second look.
5. What are you afraid of?
Fear is a powerful emotion. It can paralyze you in times of crisis,
cause you to cower in the face of an adversary, or lash out in an inap-
propriate direction. Fear will keep you silent when you should speak.
Fear will open your mouth when it’s better left shut. And, worst of
all for a leader, fear will convince you to back off and hide just when
you need to be most visible.
You don’t, however, need to eliminate fear in order to be a leader.
If that were the case, only idiots could become leaders. Fear, in addi-
tion to being a powerful emotion, is a necessary one. Rational fears
I go with what scares me.
—American actor Helen Hunt
on choosing roles
cause us to think carefully and research diligently before we invest
large sums of money in a project. Intelligent fears propel us to have
a tough conversation before promoting a marginal job candidate.
Gut-level fears remind us to forgo a walk on a dark street in an unfa-
miliar neighborhood. Eliminating any of these fears would be just
plain stupid. Think about fear this way—you just need to make sure
you control fear rather than letting fear control you.
If you approach leadership with a great deal of fear, your behav-
ior will be influenced. If you’re afraid that you’ve been promoted
beyond your competency, you’ll be hesitant to ask questions that
might show your ignorance. If you’re afraid that people think you
don’t deserve to be a leader, you’ll avoid necessary confrontations. If
you’re afraid to make a wrong decision, you’ll second-guess yourself
into a really bad decision or, even worse, make no decision at all.
A leader’s fears must be self-diagnosed. You need to spend time
thinking about what you fear. Your task isn’t to search out your fears
in order to eliminate them. Your job is to think through how those
fears might influence your leadership behaviors. You might want to
discuss your conclusions with a trusted advisor in order to get a fresh
perspective on how fear might be influencing your actions.
Don’t let fear get in the way of your development as a leader.
What am I afraid of? is an important question to ask yourself and an
even more important question to answer honestly. Don’t let fear
keep you from doing just that.
6. Are you sure you want to ask questions?
As with any new endeavor, starting is the hardest part. Reasons to
postpone action exist in abundance. “I’ll start after I finish reading
the book.” “Mondays are better for beginnings than Thursdays.”
Even traumatic events that would appear to cry out for changed
behavior (the heart attack victim who smokes, the parent whose
child gets picked up by the police for a minor offense, the leader who
loses three key employees in a short period of time) don’t always
have the desired effect. Smokers still smoke. Parents ignore early
warning signs of a troubled child. Leaders blame the competition for
stealing away their people. Behavior doesn’t change and problems
There is a simple, common, clever definition of insanity going
around: Insanity is doing the same thing, in the same way, while expect-
ing different results. I’ve seen many leaders who, by this definition,
are insane. Some are even proud of their unchanging behavior,
believing that sooner or later they’ll get people on their team who
will appreciate their leadership style for the success it is supposed to
be. While these leaders are waiting for this fantasy day to arrive, real
leaders are constantly challenging themselves to try something dif-
ferent, learn something smarter, and risk something deeper.
Real leaders are brave. They’re willing to say, “I don’t know it
all.” They ask for opinions, help, and guidance. They change. They
fail. They discard what doesn’t work, question the status quo, and
keep well-working traditions alive. They look at themselves in the
mirror and see their reflection honestly. They think. They take
action. They persist and persevere. They are gentle with themselves
as they learn and stern with themselves when they think about giv-
ing up. They ask questions.
What about you? Are you brave enough to venture forward on
this journey? Are you certain that you want to ask questions? No one
can answer this one but you. You can’t seek the recommendations
of others. Either you will or you won’t. Either you do or you don’t.
Reading this book won’t make it happen; thinking about, absorbing,
and acting on the ideas in this book will. But, in the end, it’s up to
you. Your answer and your questions.
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
The questions in this chapter were designed to be tough. Were
they? If you took them seriously, they were. They required that you
think deeply, honestly, and thoroughly. An easy answer given to any
of them means you should go back and rethink your conclusions.
Being willing to answer tough questions you pose to yourself allows
you the right to ask tough questions of others.
By asking and answering the various questions, you’ve begun to
frame your own view of leadership. You now have challenges to con-
front, measures of success to monitor, and actions to take. Use the
The only questions that really
matter are the ones you ask
—Ursula K. LeGuin, American writer
worksheets in this book (you’ll find them at the end of each chap-
ter) to reflect upon the lessons you learned from asking and answer-
ing these questions.
Because you’ve gone through this self-evaluation process, you’re
ready to take the next step. Read on.
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚ ❚
1. Which of the questions in this chapter did you find the most chal-
lenging? Why?
2. Which question in this chapter did you have the most fun answer-
ing? Why?
3. What other questions did this chapter make you think of?
4. How would you answer those questions?
5. What is the one thing you want to remember most from this
chapter? 6. What leadership ideas do you want to explore further?

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