Leadership for the Greater Good: Reflections on Today’s Challenges From Around the Globe

Utilizing Humble Inquiry to Achieve Humble Leadership

In today's VUCA world, leaders can't simply "figure things out." They must depend on colleagues and followers to provide needed information and expertise. To be successful, Ed and Peter Schein argue, leaders must be humble and engage in humble inquiry.
by Ed and Peter Schein

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The need for effective leadership is greater now than ever before. This is primarily due to the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) challenges we now face on the local, national, and global level. Leadership has always been a way in which organizations could improve upon current realities. If you strip away everything and get leadership to its most basic level, it’s just getting something to be done in a new and better way.

Leadership, in this sense, occurs at different levels by improving teamwork and decision making in small groups or by developing better strategies and visions in large units. There was a time when the tasks a group faced were relatively procedural, linear, technical, and routinized. Leaders could be individual heroes who knew what to do and how to command and control to get the job done on time. While there are still such moments where individual leaders can have a tremendous impact on a group, the multi-dimensional tasks people face today make leadership much more of a group sport.

It is increasingly the case that the positional leaders of today no longer know enough, have enough bandwidth to assimilate countless information streams, or have enough skills to tackle the complex problems they encounter. Whether they like it or not, appointed leaders cannot simply figure things out by themselves and then tell others what to do. It follows that leaders in today’s world must depend on colleagues and followers to get both the information they need and the commitment of those who will have to do something new, different, and more effective.

Many leaders of the past have, by design, maintained professionally distant relationships with their direct reports. They believed this was the best way to avoid nepotism and favoritism within the organization. However, in building organizations as hierarchies around formal roles and professional distance, they also created psychological distance for those same direct reports. This psychological distance often made subordinates feel psychologically unsafe and in competition with each other, which reduced their incentive to tell the leader what was really going on and increased the likelihood of telling the leader that things were working fine when in fact they were not. Low trust and insufficient communication across hierarchical levels resulted in low quality, serious accidents, and scandals.

Low trust and insufficient communication across hierarchical levels resulted in low quality, serious accidents, and scandals.

Researchers discovered time and again what Douglas McGregor (1960) originally outlined in his Theory X and Theory Y. He observed that effective managers believed in their people (Theory Y) while less effective leaders assumed that people could not really be trusted and, therefore, needed to be motivated and controlled (Theory X). Theory Y leaders achieved high levels of trust and openness by reducing professional distance, especially across the levels of the hierarchy. Leadership is most likely to inspire progress when the members of the team feel psychologically safe, are open about what they see, speak up about issues needing to be addressed, and offer the appropriate help that the positional leader might need. This requires high trust and high openness in the group and across the hierarchy. This typically cannot be achieved in Theory X transactional relationships.

We believe that leadership for the future needs to be less transactional and more personal. Positional leaders need to get to know, on a more personal level, all of their direct reports, their colleagues, and the stakeholders holding them accountable. Trust downward does not help if there is no trust upward.

In order to address this need for trust and openness, let’s think of this in terms of four levels of relationship that are well defined in most societies:

Level Minus 1: Domination — where one person or group dominates another. We will dismiss that as ineffective in most situations.

Level 1: Transactional — the professionally distant relationships that have dominated management thinking and exacerbated various troubles that organizations have gotten into.

Level 2: Personal — the kind of relationship that we evolve and aspire to with our friends based on knowing the whole person. Level 2 now has to come into play in our work relationships because we will not build the openness and trust that we need at work unless we treat our employees, colleagues, and even our superiors in a more personal manner.

Level 3: Intimacy — a deeper level of personal relationship. We know personal relationships can be deeper because we have intimate relationships with our good friends, lovers, and family. We sometimes also find those deeper emotional relationships in the intense teamwork of groups such as special operations forces (e.g., U.S. Navy SEALs) or in successful sports teams that develop very close relationships.

Our argument is that leadership in today and tomorrow’s complex world must be at level 2, at least, to consistently achieve new and better outcomes. We call this humble leadership and argue that humble inquiry is a necessary skill both to evolve the level 2 relationship and to become effective in a positional or appointed leadership role.

Humble inquiry is the gentle art of asking questions to which you don’t already know the answer. Humble inquiry is the effective practice of Theory Y leaders communicating to their teams that they recognize their own need for information and help. This, in turn, allows those leaders to create space for people to speak up. It communicates that they care what the group has to say, that they listen deeply, and that they will encourage joint involvement in finding adaptive moves that will produce something new and better.

One of our favorite humble leadership examples comes from the U.S. Navy. In Turn the Ship Around!, Captain David Marquet describes taking over the command of a nuclear submarine where he is faced with the complexity of improving its performance. In order to do this, he invited all his chief petty officers, the key middle-management, to sit down with him in dialogue. Then he asked them what they thought were the most pressing problems that needed to be addressed. Once they got over the shock that the captain did not begin with a command and control agenda but simply wanted to hear their views, they quickly called-out issues that could be readily addressed and yet were issues that Captain Marquet might never have identified or prioritized. He asked in a personal way that created the psychological safety to respond with complete honesty. He was still the captain; his authority was never in doubt; the hierarchy was not undermined. More importantly, he guided that hierarchy to function in a completely different manner by using humble inquiry instead of command as his leadership style.

An easy mnemonic for humble inquiry is MIC. The M is for motivation and caring. Appointed leaders must at some level care for their subordinates and communicate this caring. The I stands for intervention. Leaders must realize that they are always intervening in the communication process. Therefore, they must be constructive both by revealing their own uncertainties (vulnerability) in asking for help and in asking the reports and colleagues to reveal more of what they know. Finally, the C stands for contributing to the conversation. Leaders need to respond in a way that reveals that they have listened deeply, have heard, and have understood what the reports and peers have said. Leaders’ responses need to communicate caring, listening, and understanding.

Once there is a level of openness and trust in the group, the solutions to problems or the needed adaptive moves can be co-created in the joint conversation. A jointly achieved solution can be implemented efficiently with no need for arduous quests for buy-in because the solution has been collectively created rather than simply imposed by the leader.

Most important, utilizing humble inquiry elicits from others answers to questions that were not asked, thus providing new information and new issues that the leader may not have been aware of yet. Furthermore, this new information and these new issues may be crucial to driving enthusiasm if not breakthrough innovation. It is this process of using humble inquiry that not only reveals what is really going on but creates the personal level 2 relationships that enable the openness and trust needed for sustained, effective high-performance.

* This article is based on E.H. Schein and P.A. Schein’s 2018 book Humble Leadership: The Power of Relationships, Openness and Trust (Berrett-Koehler); and E.H. Schein and P.A. Schein’s 2021 book Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (revised edition, Berrett-Koehler).

References

Marquet, D.M. 2012. Turn the ship around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders. Penguin Random House.

McGregor, D. M. 1960. The Human Side of Enterprise. McGraw-Hill.

Ed Schein is Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management and the co-founder of The Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute. Known as “the dean of organizational culture,” Schein is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Humble Inquiry and Humble Consulting. He has received ample recognition for his work, with multiple lifetime achievement awards from associations such as the American Society of Training Directors (2000), the Academy of Management (2009), and the ILA (2012).

Peter Schein is the COO of The Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute. He is a Silicon Valley innovator with 30 years of business experience at technology companies, including Apple, in corporate development and M&A. He has an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Stanford, an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern, and an OD certificate from the USC Center for Effective Organizations. Humble Leadership is his second writing collaboration with his father, Ed.

Ed Schein is Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management and the co-founder of The Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute. Known as “the dean of organizational culture,” Schein is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Humble Inquiry and Humble Consulting. He has received ample recognition for his work, with multiple lifetime achievement awards from associations such as the American Society of Training Directors (2000), the Academy of Management (2009), and the ILA (2012).

Peter Schein is the COO of The Organizational Culture and Leadership Institute. He is a Silicon Valley innovator with 30 years of business experience at technology companies, including Apple, in corporate development and M&A. He has an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Stanford, an MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern, and an OD certificate from the USC Center for Effective Organizations. Humble Leadership is his second writing collaboration with his father, Ed.

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