A Reflective Perspective on Schein

By Kevin Meyer

I will take time to be alone today. I will take time to be quiet. In this silence I will listen… and I will hear my answers. – Ruth Fishel

Morro Bay beach with Morro RockOne of my great pleasures is going for a walk on the beach a couple blocks from my house. Contrary to the popular perception of California as a land of crazies, crowds, and freeways, Morro Bay is a small working fishing village with 10,000 residents and one stop light, at the southern end of Big Sur and the prettiest drive in the world. There are over 200 wineries within 30 miles. (end tourism bureau advertisement)

And, of course, our six mile long beach with the remnant of a long-dead (hopefully) volcano at one end. Deserted, even in high season.

A long walk in such a beautiful spot creates a connection between nature, body, mind, and God. A connection often never made while buried in the chaos of normal life. It is a time for reflection and recentering.

How am I doing, mentally, spiritually, and physically? Am I on track to achieve my personal and professional goals? What countermeasures do I need to put in place? What new opportunities can I create? What activities – and thoughts – should I stop?

Regularly asking, and answering, those questions is critical for effective professional and personal leadership.

The walk is also an exercise in observation. I always try to find something I haven’t noticed before. Whether it has always been there or is a result of the ever-changing seascape from tides or storms.  This exercise has helped me become more observant in other situations.

Zen has a concept called seijaku – stillness, quietude, and solitude. It is in a state of seijaku when we become very self-aware and can harness the essence of creative energy.

Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty, unfamiliar and perilous…. – Thomas Mann

My walks, perhaps kinhin, on our deserted beach every day or two has that affect. It’s when I connect the dots and come up with new ideas – many admittedly crazy, some not.  I find it sad, and perhaps disturbing, that more and more people seem to find it difficult to enjoy and embrace the power of solitude, of being alone. Many of the younger generations, raised in a world of artificial hyperstimulation, seem incapable of appreciating quiet solitude.

In a business world of teams we may persuade ourselves that we are at our most wonderful in a group, drawing on its power and influence, but as Michel de Montaigne insisted, ‘The only true freedom comes in solitude.’

The sources of music, painting — and writing itself — are solitary. The presence of others can be a joy, but also a problem. Other people may offer a solution to our problems, but it is usually a solution to their problems, and if it helps us it is usually by luck.

The simple reason we don’t find solutions this way is because we spend very little time with ourselves, and are discouraged from doing so in the modern world.

People go to the ends of the earth to see the great mountains, and wonder at them, and to explore the great rivers, and wonder about them. But the greatest wonder of them all — themselves — they never look at or wonder at. – Saint Augustine.

A couple weeks ago a few of us at Gemba Academy were discussing books we’ve found interesting. Jon Miller suggested Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling. Those of you who know Jon know he’s a bit of an intellectual powerhouse so, with a little trepidation that the book may not be appropriate for mental mortals like myself, I downloaded a copy.

I loved it. Schein describes three types of humility and four types of inquiry, focusing in on the power of inquiry based on here-and-now humility. This form of humility happens when we presume to be dependent on someone else because that someone has something we need – perhaps knowledge.

It struck me that, although Schein was intending to describe a relationship between two or more people, his concepts are also very appropriate for our discussions with ourselves – assuming we have them, of course.

Consider the following excerpt:

What we ask, how we ask it, where we ask it, and when we ask it all matter. But the essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person.

Feelings of Here-and-now Humility are, for the most part, the basis of curiosity and interest. If I feel I have something to learn from you or want to hear from you some of your experiences or feelings because I care for you, or need something from you to accomplish a task, this makes me temporarily dependent and vulnerable. It is precisely my temporary subordination that creates psychological safety for you and, therefore, increases the chances that you will tell me what I need to know and help me get the job done.

Creating a humble, vulnerable relationship with yourself opens you up to being able to inquire, discover, reflect, and perhaps create change. Accepting yourself for who you are creates peace.

Effective personal leadership, requiring conscious individual reflection, is critical for effective professional leadership. Take some time, alone and perhaps in the grandeur of nature, to humbly ask yourself some tough questions. You might be surprised at the response.