Humble Questions Before Setting Direction

By Kevin Meyer Updated on February 11th, 2021

I’ve long been a fan of Ed Schein, and his book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling is one of my favorite leadership books.  I wrote about Schein several years ago and a colleague recently pointed me to a recent interview where he discusses the ramifications of humility on leadership and strategy.  He begins by contrasting traditional and humble leadership.

So many CEOs don’t know how to ask their people what to do. They think they have to own it all. They have to be the big-shot hero, and the world expects them to be. In contrast, there are humble leaders who are appointed to fix or improve things, who take on that responsibility but are very smart about how dependent they really are on many other structures and people and processes.  Being responsible does not mean for them that they have to do it alone, and they realize that they cannot implement the new and better things without the involvement of others.

We like to think the role of a leader is to set a direction, but before direction is set a leader needs to ask questions and develop a process.

We have to have a lot of talk before the sense of direction emerges. Maybe the direction he needs to set is to create a safety program, or maybe it’s to create a new career program. But that will only come from figuring out, first of all: Who is he and what does he need to do as a manager? And then, what might be a better way to do it? Then he becomes more leaderly. But he has to figure it out in terms of the here and now: What’s wrong? What’s worrying him? What is the competition doing? It’s very down-to-the-ground stuff, and he won’t know all the answers. He’s going to have to ask a lot of people before he even knows what he should be doing differently.

Moving Beyond Transactional Leadership

Ed Schein then goes deeper into discussing the importance of getting to know each other on a more personal level so that we help create a culture and environment where asking questions can be meaningful.

One of the problems of the managerial culture is that it is built on a transactional concept of how people should relate to each other. You have your role, I have my role. And we maintain a lot of distance because, if we get too close, I’ll be giving you favors and it’ll be too uncomfortable. Let’s stay in our boxes and in our roles.  But when we look at Gary Kaplan and Lee Kuan Yew and these other people, it’s clear that you can’t get the job done that way. We have to get to know each other. We have to find out in a much more intimate way how we each work, because the job requires tight collaboration.

To move beyond a transactional relationship Schein says we need to “personize” – not “personalize” – the interaction.  Get to know and understand what is important to each person, which is more than just getting to know them.  Ask questions to get to know the individual, their wants and needs from a personal and organizational context, which can then lead to questions about the role the organization and leadership can play to create improvement.  Trust and understanding creates a quality relationship.

The Problem with Purpose

Schein has a major problem with the concept of purpose.

The word and concept of  “purpose” comes out of psychology.  I have learned that most of what comes out of psychology is kind of useless in this human arena. I’m a psychologist, so I’m entitled to say that. But the psychologists have never learned that everything that goes on inside motivation, purpose, and so on is based on a culture, a group, a tribe—and has been socialized into its members. And the tribal rules are what matters.

It’s a useful concept for me to know my purpose, for you to know your purpose. Is it useful as a leader should have purpose? Meaningless statement, unless you define what leadership is and what particular purpose you’re talking about. So let’s drop all the psychological stuff and focus more on culture, ethnography, tribes, groups, how things really work. That’s where it’s really at.

He then focuses the rest of the interview on how consultants and advisors should use a similar form of questioning to help leaders understand their problems before setting direction, instead of simply providing a proposed solution.

Get to know your team members, create a safe environment for questions and conversations, and then set direction.  Create and support a process and culture for those questions.

  1. Muhammad Hasan Ashraf

    October 5, 2022 - 1:39 pm

    A very interesting article. I really like the fact that in the 21st century the corporate world has deviated away from the “all-mighty” leadership approach. Leaders in the current world have to understand how crucial it is to reach out to their subordinates and maintain an environment of mutual respect, collaboration, and cooperation. Being a leader does not mean that he/she does everything by themself, but instead, involves others and moves forward with consensus. However, to achieve this, creating trust is also important. Subordinates should trust their leadership and vice versa. This article somehow reminds me of a leadership approach in the management domain known as paradoxical leader behavior. These leaders maintain self-centeredness while simultaneously showing other-centeredness, maintain hierarchical distinctions while simultaneously forming interpersonal bonds with employees, treat employees consistently while simultaneously taking individual considerations into account, enforce work requirements while allowing flexibility, and maintain decision control while allowing autonomy. Great article that every business leader should read.

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