Curious: WHO SAID THAT?!!!!!

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Recently I heard a story told about Nikita Khrushchev.*  He was the communist party leader in the USSR during the 1950s.  The story goes that, during his time as party leader, Khrushchev came to the US in a gesture of good will.  After visiting with the president he took questions at the Washington Press Club in DC.  He requested that the questions be written out.  Early in the session there was a question asked of him regarding his leadership while under Stalin.  The question read…

Mr. Khrushchev, today you talked about the hideous rule of your predecessor Stalin.  You were one of his closest aids and colleagues during those years.  What were you doing all that time?

Upon hearing the question read Khrushchev’s face began to turn red.  As he looked around the room he asked, with intensity, “Who asked this?”

No one answered.

With more fervor he asked again, “Who asked this?!”

Again – silence.

Finally, with veins beginning to show on his forehead and shouting voice, he exclaimed, “WHO ASKED THIS?!!!!”

An ominous hush was over the entire room.  It was dead silent.

After a long pause Khrushchev spoke.  “That’s what I was doing.”

It is hard for me to imagine the climate that Khrushchev was asked to lead in.  In that era it was not uncommon for those who would disagree with Stalin to either be sent to the Gulag (the massive system of forced labor camps) or killed.  There was concrete precedent for bodily harm to come to those having an opinion other than that of the authority.  But even in this moment – when Khrushchev was on U.S. soil.  When there was no threat of Gulag or execution – silence.

For me, this story is a great example of our last principle of leadership.  “It’s Risky”.**

It is no wonder to me why board rooms, offices, city halls, fellowship halls and kitchen tables often grow silent when tough issues are at play.  It’s uncomfortable to engage when the stakes are high.  And not only uncomfortable – differing opinions could cause riffs.  My involvement could lead to people not liking me.  Others might even say bad things about me.  My reputation could be tarnished.  I don’t need the grief.

There is always a cost to getting in the game.  Always.  And most of us, on a regular basis, are being invited to take our place.  That’s why, in my opinion, growing in our skills to lead more effectively should motivate all of us.  Why?  Because leading is about more than having an opinion.  All of us have one of those.  The harder work is inviting others to think with us.  Be curious with us.  To do the work of learning with us.  So that the difference that is made isn’t just about me getting my way – but about creating a better way for everyone.  That is a different work and, in my opinion, a more effective work.

Risky?  You bet.  Hard? Significantly so.

But the only other option, as I see it, is silence…and that just feels very unfortunate to me.

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Tal Ben Sharhar, Harvard Lecture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUTj9QVd-AU

**Kansas Leadership Center, Leadership Principle #5.

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Curious: Why?

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During my years as church pastor, more than once, I felt like I needed to have a hard conversation with a parishioner.  Usually it began with me being bugged by something I was seeing.  Maybe it was something that seemed to be effecting someone’s life (a destructive habit) or maybe it was words that were being spoken to others in the congregation (stirring distrust).  Bottom line, I felt like something was wrong and that I needed to speak to them about it.

As noble as I might have felt going in to many of these conversations – let’s just say that they didn’t always go so well.  More than once I walked into a conversation only to find myself in a hailstorm of backlash and disagreement.  If I thought there were issues at play before my conversation with them – it was nothing compared to what appeared to be stirred up as a result of it.

Looking back – I’m going to give myself a little credit.  As pastor, I thought that I had a platform to speak to some of the challenging things I saw in others life.  But I also have to lay some blame at my feet as well.  More times than not, when I would walk into these hard conversations, my purpose was not clear.  Yes – I could give A reason for why I felt the conversation was needed but maybe not the deeper reason.

Let me try to explain with another story.

Toward the end of my pastoring career I had one of these tough conversations that didn’t go well.  I think I’m safe in saying that it wound up effecting half the church.  There were factions that formed and varying versions of the private conversation were floating about.  In the midst of it all I decided to consult with one our church leaders.  We met, and after sharing my interpretation of the facts he said, “Why?”  “Why did you feel it was necessary to talk to this person about this particular issue?”

My first thought was – because I’m the pastor.  I’m supposed to bring these tough issues up.  Right?

Maybe – But why?  What was your reason?  Why was this so important to you?

Is it because you want people to behave themselves?  Is it because it is negatively effecting others in the church?  Is it because you care deeply for them and feel this is dangerous to their well-being?  Are there other reasons?  Is it a combination of these?

Without diving deeper into this particular story let me just say that I think that this exercise in self-inquiry could have helped me out quite a bit if I had done it before I had my tough conversation.  And not just this one but all kinds of others as well.

Why?

Because these questions demand that I get clearer about my purpose.

And this is an important leadership principle.

If we will lead well, your purpose (and mine) must be clear.*

Sometimes, when I am coaching someone, I’ll ask a “why” question.  I’ll ask why they made a certain decision or why they think things are going a certain way in their lives or organization.  Depending on the reply I’ll often respond – “think harder.”  “Tell me why?”  “Why is the antagonist in your story not behaving the way you think they should?”  “Why did you intervene the way you did?”  “Why are you so emotional about this?”  “Why?”

I ask these questions because they invite us to clarity, and ultimately, to purpose.

In an attempt to lay all my cards on the table – this is a tool that I’m still on a high learning curve with.  But I’ll confess – I want to do better.  Why?  Because I’m convinced that the strongest acts of leadership have been marinated in the questions of purpose – and the answers that emerge from that marinade tend to be much more informed and beneficial to the common good.

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*Kansas Leadership Center – Leadership Principle #4.

Collaboration – Am I Naive?

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According to an ancient Sufi story, a blind man wandering lost in a forest tripped and fell.  As the blind man rummaged about the forest floor he discovered that he had fallen over a cripple.  The blind man and the cripple struck up a conversation, commiserating on their fate.  The blind man said, “I have been wandering in the forest for as long as I can remember, and I cannot see to find my way out.”  The cripple said, “I have been lying on the forest floor for as long as I can remember, and I cannot get up to walk out.”  As they sat there talking, suddenly the cripple cried out.  “I’ve got it, he said.  “You hoist me up onto your shoulders and I will tell you where to walk.  Together we can find our way out of the forest.”*

To me – there is a simple genius to this story.  It doesn’t feel like rocket science.  Collaborations have the potential to be transformational.

So – why don’t we see these everywhere?  Why does this feel so hard?

Why is this hard for two executives trying to build companies in the same industry?

Why is this hard for two nonprofits who are trying to make a difference in the same community?

Why is this hard for two researchers who are trying to make progress in the same field?

Why is this hard for two neighbors who want to make their community a better place?

Why is this hard for churches?

Spouses?

Siblings?

You?

Me?

Am I naïve (and I might be)?  Or have we so turned our back on the art and work of transformational collaboration that the very idea of sharing anything is unthinkable?  I’m convinced that we are so concerned about anyone else getting a leg up on us that the very idea of reaching a hand to someone else is considered foolish.

Was it foolish for the cripple to propose a strategic coloration to the blind man?

For some reason, at least in this case, it feels like the distance between foolish and genius is awfully close.

———

*Senge, Peter; The Fifth Discipline, p. 157.