Edgar H. Schein — Humble Inquiry — True Leaders Listen

Leaders are meant to overpower, command, demand and be capable of doing everything themselves. Obviously.

I hope you made a disgusted sound of disgust or at least a confused one after reading that^

There may be many types of leadership, but rarely should one aspire to practice a single characteristic in their pursuit of learning to be a leader. Confidence and the ability to command may be highly effective or even necessary in certain circumstances, but so is humulity. How do you meld humility with strength? Everyone’s answer will be different, my own is, “through an ongoing process of trial, error and intentional growth.”

I first heard of Humble Inquiry — The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, through a friend of mine in Los Angeles. They have experienced a long and varied professional journey that has amounted in an intense focus on good leadership practice. Given my interest in leadership (what does that even mean, really?), I asked my friend out for coffee in order to hear them speak about their varied roles of leadership. He suggested I read this book, as the art of “humble inquiry” is a critical part of his journey as a (forever) developing leader.

It is a short book (just over 100 pages) so reading it was more about personal reflection than information dumping.

I would encourage any aspiring leader (which is every leader, if you are truly honest with yourself) to take a small amount of time and read this book in order to assess their position when it comes to the ability to lead with humility.

One of the more simple and yet profound takeaways from this book was a story about the author’s encounter with two C-Suite individuals.

These two executives were frustrated with the stagnation or complacency that had settled into their firm. Employees followed rote patterns and lacked the creative and exploratory spark that arises from spontaneity and change.

Edgar Schein, the author of this book, was summoned to provide guidance and advice for the problem.

At the luncheon, Edgar was unsure what the actual problem was and therefore left space for the executives to speak (he was the “expert” and yet he did not immediately take over the situation). Soon the executives began to talk about their problem and groan over how much it bothers them (still being ambiguous), so Edgar asked a simple question, “Can you give me an example?” (He still has not commanded or demanded or flexed his expertise muscle, even though he was literally hired to fix their problem)

One of the executives broke quickly into a story about meetings in the company. “…everyone always comes in and sits in the EXACT same spot at the table…one day, several employees were out of the office and therefore the meeting was smaller than usual, and yet when everyone entered the room, they all still sat in “their” spots!! Even though this left them scattered and separated in a strange fashion…!”

The executive finished and looked expectantly (almost pleadingly) at Edgar.

So the expert (Edgar) immediately launched into a specific list of solutions and strategies for addressing the problem at the company. He thoroughly impressed these highly successful individuals with his broad knowledge, pertinent vocabulary and quick succession in which he was able to lay out the pathway to solve all of their problems for them………………………..


He paused, and asked one simple question, “what did you do?”

Answering quickly, the executive said, “well nothing! I wa-…..” Realization slowly spread from one executive’s face to the other’s.

These leaders realized that their insoluble problem was rooted in their failure to respond (properly).

From this position of intensely relevant understanding, Edgar was then able to help the excited leaders lay out various strategies for ways that they could address the problem back at the firm.

Edgar highlights the critical value of admitting to oneself (as an experienced and impactful leader) that you do not need to have all of the answers every time a question is asked of you.

By asking simple questions instead of launching into his area of strategic expertise, Edgar was able to establish a level of mutual understanding and personal acknowledgment (that of the executives’ contribution to the root of the problem at the firm) that allowed for the most impactful leadership that he could provide in that situation.

As a young leader that finds himself in many similar situations, I was struck by the simplicity (and relative ease when compared to the expectation of an immediate, highly pertinent response) of this approach. Attentive leadership that trumps adroit responses.

Wonderful, short read.

Written by

Non Aesthetic Van Lifer: https://www.storiesfromtheroad.life/

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