Principle #1: Leadership is an activity, not a position.
Leadership and authority are two different things. Leadership is mobilizing others to solve their most important challenges. Authority is more like management. Having good people in authority positions is absolutely necessary to keep things functioning at a high level, but authority alone is not sufficient to make progress on the things that matter most.
Principle #2: Anyone can lead, anytime, anywhere.
If we want to solve our most important challenges, more people need to embrace the idea that everyone can lead. When it comes to our toughest challenges, we all have a part to play. Lots of people need to contribute time and energy. Saying “yes” to the idea that anyone can see and seize their moment to lead means risking your own comfort for the sake of progress on something that matters.
Principle #3: Leadership starts with you and must engage others.
Some things an expert can fix or the boss can order done. But as a culture, we’ve fallen into the bad habit of waiting for others to lead. When you embrace this principle, the waiting is over. Action is yours to take and the time is now. No matter your position, age, or level of experience, you can do something to mobilize others to make progress on an important leadership challenge. The goal of taking action is not to fix things yourself but to engage other people.
Principle #4: Leadership is risky.
If you’ve ever attempted to get people to work together on a difficult challenge, you know that leadership is risky. We want to drive home this principle as both a warning and encouragement. Even as you do everything you can to energize others to solve a big challenge, pay attention and build your skill at minimizing risks.
Principle #5: Leadership is about our toughest challenges.
You have to care about something really important—an aspiration or a big concern. Without a clear sense of purpose nothing is going to change. It’s not leadership if it’s not about those tough challenges.
Everyone Can Ask Powerful Questions
Diagnosis is fueled by questions. Good questions generate better interpretations and lead to better interventions. Good questions sometimes raise the heat and sometimes work wonders to lower the heat and keep groups in the productive zone.
Albert Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask.” Asking questions is a leadership skill that is available to anyone. It’s one of the simplest (though not always easy) ways for people without authority to exercise leadership. Take these examples:
A young professional, after participating in a three-hour meeting covering dozens of topics, meets with their manager and asks, “Of all the topics we just discussed, what is most critical for our success over the next month? I’m confused about how all this fits together.” That question won’t change the world, but it might help the manager realize people are wondering where to focus.
A small business has been losing customers. At a staff meeting an employee asks, “What story might our customers be telling about us and how is it different from the one we tell ourselves?” That question could elicit some pretty important introspection for the struggling business.
A math teacher notices no evidence of concern among school staff, despite major challenges such as an increasing percentage of students from impoverished families. At the beginning of a staff meeting the teacher asks, “What would be a good outcome for this meeting and how does it connect to our biggest challenges?” That question might nudge the group to be more purposeful.
It’s Not Always Easy to Ask a Powerful Question
Asking powerful questions is a leadership move that is available to any of us, no matter our position in an organization or community. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Things (including ourselves) can get in the way. As you start asking powerful questions, remember:
You must genuinely want to help others engage in difficult work. If you are most concerned about getting information for yourself, then your questions will be self-serving. You’ll ask things like “When does the meeting start?” “Am I supposed to be there?” and “What do we need to do before we get there?” You might really need to know the answers to those questions, but they are about you, not about others. Leadership is about mobilizing others. Your questions need to serve them. They need to inspire others to think or engage differently around a challenge.
Don’t overinflate the risk of interjecting a question. Leadership is always risky, but asking a powerful question is one of the least risky actions you can take. Questions suggest a direction for the discussion and invite people into the productive zone. It might be out of the group norm for someone like you to ask powerful questions, but the risk is likely minimal, especially if you pick the right type of question for the moment. Inflating the risk involved is one of the ways we let ourselves off the hook.
Avoid “suquestions.” That’s when your question is really a suggestion. If you have a suggestion, make it. But don’t pretend it’s a question. “Have you ever thought about . . .?” and “What would you think of the idea of . . .?” are suggestions disguised as questions. Powerful questions come from a place of curiosity. They are motivated by a desire to help an individual or group access their own creativity and find their way forward.
Everyone Can Make Multiple Interpretations
How we think about a problem determines how we try to solve it. Change or evolve our thinking and we might discover ways for more progress. Imagine these situations:
A seventh-grader is routinely late for school. His single mom, exhausted from juggling two jobs and raising three kids, thinks he doesn’t wake up early enough. She buys him an alarm clock and scolds him for not waking up earlier. But what if he is getting bullied in the hallway before school starts? The alarm clock and scolding won’t help that situation.
A small business owner keeps losing employees and thinks it’s because the economy is struggling. Knowing he can’t control the broader economy, he just keeps complaining and looking for new employees. But what if the workplace culture is toxic or uninspiring? An economic turnaround won’t fix that.
Every leadership effort starts with collecting information. The mom heard from the school that her kid is always late. The business owner saw that employees were quitting. The party chair couldn’t help but notice the disastrous election results.
And in most cases, with just a few observations, we make an interpretation about what’s going on. The mom decides the boy is oversleeping. The business owner decides it’s the economy’s fault. The chair decides he knows what the issue is.
Usually our quick interpretation justifies a relatively easy response, lacking any deep diagnosis. The mom scolds and buys an alarm clock. The business owner complains and hires new employees. The party chair sends out talking points and then returns to business as usual.
Push Beyond Your First Idea
A prerequisite for progress is to think about the problem differently. More observations generate more interpretations and more possible actions. Let’s revisit our three examples one more time:
What if that mom also observes that, in fact, they always arrive at the school 10 minutes before classes start, but her son fidgets nervously in the car until a certain group of kids walks into the building? She might start to wonder if being late is a way to avoid something uncomfortable at school in the morning.
What if that business owner also observes unkind gossip and treatment of new employees by the tenured staff? He might start to wonder if in addition to hiring new staff he might need to get rid of some of the old ones.
We encourage people to push past their first interpretations to generate others that point toward more-difficult-to-execute action steps. If you find yourself resisting an interpretation because addressing it would involve loss and discomfort, you’re probably on to something. Tougher interpretations are the ones most likely to lead to lasting progress on our most difficult problems.
When you engage a group to consider multiple tough interpretations, you are inviting them to consider conflicting versions of the truth—not so they can act on each one but so they can choose which interpretations are worth exploring further.
Everyone Can Act Experimentally
You learn a lot about yourself when you stand in front of an audience, without a script, and have no idea what to say or do next. All eyes are on you and the audience is expecting you to make them laugh. It is frightening and liberating at the same time. You learn to stay present, listen deeply, and then just try something. It might work, meaning it might be funny.
Even if it’s not funny, it might create something that allows someone else on stage to do something funny. Or whatever you do could completely fail, falling flat with a big, giant thud of silence all around you. But even then, the failure is short-lived. Someone tries something else, the audience laughs, and the game goes on. You just need to keep trying things, working with your partners, and experimenting your way to raucous laughter.
Improvisational comedy is an experimental art. Leadership is an experimental art, too. As with improv, you can’t be sure what will work. What got people to laugh last night might not work tonight. What worked to mobilize people around that challenge last month might not work with the challenge you face this month.
Successful improv comedy requires a steady stream of set-ups from partners, jokes that land, good use of silence, and surprising moments. We might say that a series of experiments gets people into the productive “humor” zone. The actors know they need to hold people in that zone, but what works will be different night to night, moment to moment. Getting and keeping people in the zone requires every actor to experiment. Sometimes audience members experiment too, offering topics and suggestions for scenes, occasionally even joining actors on stage.
Progress on adaptive challenges requires a steady stream of people seeing their moment to jump on stage and move the group forward. With leadership, like improv, seizing your moment is always an experiment. With improv, you don’t know if a joke will work until you try it. With leadership, you don’t know if your action will have an impact until you try it.
When Everyone Leads, We All Act Experimentally
Just like an improv company needs all its actors to try lots of jokes, progress on adaptive challenges requires lots of people to do their part, run experiments to keep the heat at a healthy simmer, and move the group forward to success.
It’s tricky, though. It runs against the quick-fix mentality. It’s also hard to accept that not everything we try will work. When you embrace an experimental mindset, you embrace failure. Many of your leadership experiments won’t work! That’s why we call them experiments.
Acting experimentally is risky. But when enough people in an organization, company, or community embrace an experimental mindset, we reach a tipping point. Experiments become a hallmark of our culture. Smart risks and the occasional failure become the norm. People back up one another’s experiments and help one another learn.