"I know you won’t believe me, but the highest form of human excellence is to question oneself and others.
—Socrates, Greek Philosopher 469–399 BC
I attribute the little I know to my not having been ashamed to ask for information, and to my rule of conversing with all descriptions of men on those topics that form their own peculiar professions and pursuits.
—John Locke, English Philosopher 1632–1704
Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Many years ago, while undergoing infantry officer training at Ft. Benning, Ga., Major Thomas Kennedy put me in charge of a 100 man company for the day. The first goal was to get the men loaded onto transport and out to the bayonet course. To do so, I was overseeing the actual loading of two of the trucks. Maj. Kennedy came up to me and said, "Lieutenant, as a company commander, you make a great squad leader.” Thankfully he whispered, and thankfully I learned what he meant.
What does all of this have to do with being an owner, chief executive officer, senior manager or line supervisor?
These esteemed philosophers point out that, no matter how experienced, intelligent or educated you are, or how esteemed and lofty your position, there is no way that you know more about everything than your subordinates or colleagues, nor how to do everything better than they can or will do. You may well know how to do some things better, but if you’re actually doing their work then, as explained to me by Maj. Kennedy, you’re not doing your job.
Your job is not to know everything or to do the work of others. Your job is to question, then, having questioned, to listen attentively. Your job is to lead and, in doing so, to lead by example. In some cases, your job may be to follow.
When might you ask questions of your subordinates or colleagues? When they’re closer to the situation and have more hands-on knowledge and, quite possibly, some very good and actionable ideas. You might also want to ask questions of your customers since they are the end-users of your product or services.
When should you lead? Every day, keeping in mind there are times when you lead the charge and times when you will be most effective in the background. It is when you are in the background that you can foster the growth of your subordinates or colleagues by giving them not only responsibility and accountability, but authority as well.
When should you follow? When someone else has greater experience, expertise, knowledge and ability, after they’ve defined their goals and objectives clearly and concisely, after they’ve created their action plan, and after you’ve signed off.
It’s hard to remain silent when people do things differently than you. However, so long as what they’re doing is neither immoral, illegal nor in defiance of company policy, then focus on the outcome, not the process. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on minutiae and losing sight of the bigger picture.
In closing, here’s a most apt quote from General George S. Patton: "Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.”
L. Douglas Mault is president of Executive Advisory Institute, Portland, Ore. The website is www.consulteai.com; he can be reached at (888) 428.3331. See his ad on page 46.