Get Smart with Socrates


Like Socrates, I know one thing for sure:  I don’t know anything for sure.  The cool thing about “not knowing” is that you’re always learning.  I learned a TON last week, and I want to share three quickies with you.  I hope they help you see that whatever ignorance, lack, uncertainty, or emptiness you have at the outset of this week can instead be seen as one monstrous opening to learn.

From last Monday on, over 525 awesome RFLrleaders gave me feedback on what they wanted from RFL, and almost half took the time to answer the open-ended question to share with me what might make RFL better.  The feedback was rich (if you’re interested, see the top 6 requested topics, below).

On Wednesday, Scarlett my Great Voice Teacher taught me a bunch of stuff.  She brings technical knowledge and vast experience.  And she brings the obvious: She can’t hear or see what I intend, but only what I present.  She hears things (e.g., my overemphasis on consonants) and often sees things (e.g., hunched shoulders or furrowed brow) that I have no idea I am doing. Okay, let’s trade places: You are me, and in place of Scarlett the teacher, put:  your kid(s), staff, customer, significant other, or if you’re feeling daring, your adversary or rival.  Now ask for feedback! Think of how much they see and hear that you don’t know or intend!  Consider how they could share perspectives, angles, freshness, or even cutting skepticism that would expand your knowledge.

Last feedback story to tie it all together:  I took a walk with Jim Kouzes last week and we talked about the Leadership Practices Inventory – the 360 tool that connects to the 5 practices outlined in his and Barry Posner’s work, The Leadership Challenge.  The questions are all about how frequently someone engages in a behavior – from “almost always” to “almost never.”   Jim was telling me they have scores in their database for over a quarter million leaders, and over a million people who have filled it out on themselves and/or someone else.  Jim was saying that in their just-released book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, they noted that single least practiced behavior was:  “asks for feedback on how [his or her] actions affect other people’s performance.”

Singing is performance, and I’d like to be a good singer, so I’m asking Scarlett every week, “how am I doing?” If I want to be a great leader, I could get feedback from a coach, but whose opinion really matters most?  It’s my “followers,” whose performance is so important.  They see me from multiple angles. Each one is different in background, knowledge, temperament, etc.  Each interfaces with different stakeholders that I care about. Each is trying to practice our vision, goals, strategies, mission. Whose opinion could possibly be more important for my performance . . . at orchestrating their performance?  And yet seeking feedback from followers is dead last on the list of leadership practices.

Jim told me that some people have said to them, “drop the question about seeking feedback! If it’s consistently last, it’s statistically suspect as a useful question.” His response is: NO. People need to know how important this behavior is, so it’s the last question they’d drop.

As a boss, choir director, parent, leader it’s easy to “keep on truckin’,” as they used to say.  But maybe this week you should set up some opportunities to learn (what you don’t know).  You could ask:

  • How ‘m I doing?
  • What do you wish I’d do more often?
  • What do you wish I’d quit doing – or just do a lot less?
  • What have you seen other managers (parents, teachers, etc.) do, that you think might help me to support your achievement?

I don’t know.  Socrates didn’t either.  But I’m with him, when it comes to asking a lot of questions.  It sure helps you to

Lead with your best self!


Results from last week’s survey on RFL – How many checked the “top box”?
“Would definitely read it”

1.  Positive leadership 68.3%

2.  Inspiring others 68.2%

3.  Conflict 57.2%

4.  Emotional intelligence 52.1%

5.  Servant leadership 44.8%

6.  Getting feedback 44.5%

  • interesting how “feed back” was #6 (last) on the list of topics of interest – convieniently ties right back in to the point you making at the end oc the column!

  • It is SO IMPORTANT not to know! A key ingredient in leadershp. A leader who knows, directs… tells people what to do… sets the agenda… and thereby insults and ignores and discounts the intelligence and input and insight of those most affected by the decision–namely, those who’ll implement it!

    I’m co-chair of a multi-church effort to figure out what to do about the high dropout rate in schools. We spent a couple of weeks looking at the multifarious causes. We researched websites and people who are dealing with it. We became discouraged and confused and lost focus and failed to even agree on a meeting time! It seemed impossibly big, impossibly complex. We were aware of our own limied ability to even understand it, much less agree on even one thing thatcould be done about it. Everyone was wandering around in their own little world, caring so much and feeling so powerless and overwhelmed.

    Fortunately, my co-chair cared enough to recruit some school officials and community leaders to come to the next meeting. I became so frustrated that I arbitrarily set a meeting time even if the two co-chairs and the speakers were the only ones who attend. The Board of Directors was so excited that some of them are going to come! Two of the people who can’t come recruited two other caring, involved, informed and talented people to come! One woman who can’t come suggested one little part of this many-headed hydra that maybe we can have an impact on–suspensions, are they too long?

    I asked some retired teachers and they think it’s about providing the students with lots of extracurricular activities because research shows that students who become involved tend to stay in school. Seem simpl. Maybe the PTA could help out.

    I know the least about this whole thing because I didn’t grow up in this area, my kids didn’t grow up in this area, and my kids went to private school anyway. Because I don’t know, and clearly don’t know, I ask a lot of questions… and then all these people jump up with all this insight and knowledge and research and caring and energy to invest in our simple hope! I guess nature abhors a vacuum. It’s as if they were just waiting to be asked. Maybe they took pity on my inability to get a handle on the whole thing, as I summarized on the litserv where we were, where we weren’t, and how little progress we’d made.

    I don’t know how it will turn out; I just know that I’m being hailed as some kind of remarkable leader. Why? Because I DON’T KNOW! Its a gift–a very powerful one for empowering and inspiring and engaging people.

    People want to help so my weakness–NOT KNOWING–is the gift that’s attracting all this talent, all this skill. Amazing to observe, the power of not knowing. I strongly recommend it.

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