Real leaders ask questions

12 Apr

Whoa! What a surprise. There they are in today’s reading — what I call The Lynn Review Questions:

  • How are you doing?
  • What are you learning?
  • What are your goals?
  • How can I help you?

My former boss, Lynn S. Atcheson, met with each of her staff several times a year to review the answers to these questions. It was intended as a status report on our progress toward the annual performance review. I valued these questions and the dialogue they opened up so much that I later used them with my own direct reports. I’ve even kept the list on my Palm for almost 10 years!

However, I was missing was the underlying infrastructure that goes along with the questions, as detailed in Stephen R. Covey’s article New Wine, Old Bottles. I always knew Lynn was a student of leadership, and she made it clear she did not originate the questions, but I never knew the source.

Lynn’s use of the questions went along with how our performance agreements were structured: We were the “experts” in our individual specialty areas. Lynn provided guidelines, and then it was up to each one of us to decide how the work was to be done. When we ran into tough decisions, we knew she was available to help.

I’m presuming this December 1994 Executive Excellence article is an excerpt from one of Covey’s books – perhaps Principle-Centered Leadership or Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. While this article outlines the general principles of servant leadership, a more detailed exploration would be helpful. For example, one of Covey’s three steps to transformation is “Build a new relationship.” To do that, you have to have trust. But this article doesn’t explain how to build relationship of trust – although I realize there’s no magic formula – or, more challengingly, how to resuscitate relationships where trust has been broken. Perhaps it’s covered in his books.

Covey recommends setting up performance agreements and becoming a source of help, à la Lynn. This is difficult for most managers to pull off – Lynn is a rarity. In my experience, most managers struggle with the day-to-day interactions more, and tend to fall into old judging patterns without even realizing it. Me included.

A related Wall Street Journal article, Good Leadership Requires Executives to Put Themselves Last, also skimps on the details. The point of the article: Corporations shouldn’t assume that strong governance principles are enough. The actions of leaders matter more. Michael Leven’s story is compelling, but I wish the article were longer with more exploration of practices and principles for leaders – although perhaps The Dean’s Disease could suffice. With a shorter article, sadly most of the target audience will fail to recognize themselves and the need for change.

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