Great leaders change how we think

Great leaders change how we think

We all can remember a leader or mentor in our lives we’d call truly inspiring.  The one who knew how to support everyone’s individual creativity and best talents, who encouraged honest dialogue and brought out the best in people.

About a decade ago, our team held a brainstorming session to try to define the qualities of these exceptional people.  We spent hours scribbling and mind mapping and eventually came up with a single sheet of paper—our definition of leadership, now dog-eared and yellowed with age—that goes everywhere we go.  Jotted at all angles are words like “aspire,” “diplomacy,” “genuine,” “mobilize,” “exemplify,” “spark,” “courage,” “perspective,” “respect,” “influence,” “humor,” and “inquiry.”

At the very bottom are two lines: “A leader is anyone who helps others grow” and “Great leaders change how we think.”

Great leaders don’t change what we think, but rather how we think, often because they ask better questions than anyone else.  This is one reason great leaders love Appreciative Inquiry, an approach to change management that zeroes in on successes and how to create more of them. AI is a formal, staged process, but it starts with asset-based questions:

“What’s been our best experience with…”

“What worked well the last time we tried this? How we use that information?”

“What would be the ideal outcome of this change? What steps can we take right now to set this in motion?”

Since questions like these can only produce positive answers, fear and limits are forced out of the conversation.  Constructive, future-focused, high possibility thinking takes over.

And some serendipity too: as the team remembers the best of the past, they’re reminded that they’ve risen to challenges before, and get a jolt of confidence that they can do it again. Change starts to look and feel very different. No longer negative and scary, but full of potential. A better future is taking shape, and the team feels empowered with real tools to create that future.

“The David is in the marble”

Michelangelo once said that his masterpieces were already in the marble and his job was just to take away the extra stone so they could emerge.

Maybe there’s a David or a Pieta in every change–no matter how unsightly it looks at first? And maybe just by asking better questions, we can get rid of the stuff in the way and let it appear.

That would start an interesting debate for sure.  But the real issue isn’t whether the David is already in the marble. The real issue is that if we believe good questions can shift the energy and attention to let a masterpiece emerge, we may be right.  And just imagine if we are.