As soon as he walked in door everyone immediately stopped talking and stood to attention. That’s the correct thing to do when a lieutenant general walks into the room. The General is considered a leader because he has three stars on his shoulders, but we often confuse rank for leadership. Yes, he is a high-ranking official in the military, but what makes this general a great leader is that he acts like a child.
There is one question that all children ask that we almost completely stop asking when we become adults: "why." With one glaring exception: great leaders.
When we ask “how?” or “what?” we’re usually asking for details, process or clarification. We’re asking for information that will help us do our jobs or get something done. The question why is very different. When we ask “why?” we reveal that we don’t understand something. It shows vulnerability. It reveals not knowing. And that is exactly the reason great leaders ask why so often. They are aware that they don’t know what they don’t know and they aren’t afraid so show it.
The General sat down and his briefing commenced. His guest started sharing with him some new ideas that the General had never heard before, and his whole demeanor changed. He was no longer an imposing general, he became like a little kid. He didn’t pretend he knew the subject matter. He wasn’t intimidated that he didn’t understand some of the concepts. Quite the opposite. He leaned forward with a child-like wonderment, ready to learn something new.
Great leaders are not the ones who hold the highest office or make the most money, they are the ones who inspire the people around them. And people are inspired when they feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. The General, like all other great, inspiring leaders, inspires those around them not because of what he knows but because of how he makes others feel.
When someone of vast achievement or status shows genuine interest in the ideas of those around them, it makes those people feel valuable. It makes them feel like they are contributing. Command and control is not great leadership. It may be great management or delegation, but great leadership is not just about the ability to get things done, it’s the capacity to inspire others to take responsibility to get things done. When people in an organization believe in the greater cause and are made to feel a valuable part of it, they become vastly more conscientious about everything they do to contribute to that cause.
Poor leaders often reveal themselves very quickly when they point to their rank or accomplishments as reason they don’t need to listen to outside ideas. If you’ve ever genuinely wanted to contribute and been swiftly rebuffed with words like, “we’re a lot more successful than you, I think we know what I’m doing,” or “and what have you achieved that gives you the right to tell me what to do?” then congratulations, you’re talking to someone who may have achieved a lot, but they are not great.
The reason great leaders ask "why" is simple – they have an insatiable curiosity and they want to know what they don’t know. They understand that the more ideas, perspectives and things they can learn – inside AND outside their own disciplines – the more information it gives them to make better decisions. Great leaders are eternal students. Regardless of what they have learned, what they know or what they have achieved, they always want to know more. The value of their curiosity is more than a nicety, it has a biological benefit.
The rational and analytical part of our brains – the part of our brain that makes us sound like adults – can access the equivalent of about 2-feet of information around us. This is the conscious information we access when we think about a problem, when we weigh the pros and the cons, consider the facts and the figures before we make a decision. In contrast, our limbic brains – the part of our brains that actually control behavior and decision-making - can access subconscious information. Information that doesn’t come out on any list of pros and cons. Our limbic brain is filled with our entire life’s worth of experiences, lessons and information; the equivalent of 11-acres worth of information. This is the information that is being tapped when we make gut-decisions or when we act instinctively. No data is weighed in these decisions yet they are, very often, better quality decisions.
Those with an insatiable curiosity, those who constantly want to see more, do more understand why, are filling their subconscious brains with data that can be tapped at a later date. It will help influence and drive decisions and the decision maker won’t even know it’s happening when they’re doing it.
There is something we can all do to fill our subconscious brains to make us better decision makers and, ultimately, make us better leaders. We can learn to act like children again.
Here are some ideas:
1. When we’re kids, we read all kinds of different stories, but as adults we focus on our industries. Take time to read more books and magazines that have nothing to do with your industry. Learn about how others are doing and how they solve problems (maybe even read fewer from your own).
2. When we’re kids, our parents and our teachers drag us to museums and performances of all kinds. Go wonder around the natural history museum or an art gallery. Go see a ballet performance. And don’t just complain the whole time that you want to go home. Try to find something you like about any of those things.
3. When we’re kids, we go on class trips, but as adults we don’t. Take class trips. Take a day or an afternoon off and take your team somewhere that has nothing to do with work for no other reason than to do or see something new or different.
4. Ask "why." We so often ask questions to prove people wrong as opposed to understand what they mean. Really listen to the ideas of others. If someone approaches you with good intentions, ask lots of questions and try to really understand the meaning and value of the idea they are offering. Show genuine interest.
5. Encourage all the people who report to you to do all the above. Even encourage them to take an afternoon off simply to explore or subsidize a personal enrichment class they want to take outside of work.