Every great leader has a “secret weapon.” Do you?

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Every great leader has a “secret weapon.” Do you? post image

Guest Post By Ben Sands

So my wife, Sarah, is going to kill me for telling you this, but it’s important:

Our shower is looking gross these days.

Don’t get me wrong, the shower itself is great – glass doors, beautiful tile – but about six months ago a funky stain started to appear on the grout between the tiles.

It started small – just a spot here and there – but it’s spreading like it’s on a mission.

And I can’t stop it.

I have sprayed and scrubbed and prayed…nothing seems to work.

In fact, this weekend, in a last ditch effort, I got in there with my electric toothbrush and tried to “Sonicare-it” to stain Heaven.

No luck.

shower tile RAfter that I was ready to give up; to concede defeat.

The stain was here to stay.

And then, yesterday, in a conversation with a contractor-friend of mine, he casually mentioned “sealing the grout” on a recent remodel project he was doing.

“Wait, say that again?” I asked.

“Sealing the grout…you know, to protect it from staining.”

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

A year ago, my house was brand new. Did the builder just forget to seal the grout!?

“No,” my friend replied when I asked, “they almost never do, unless you ask.”

NOT KNOWING IS NOT AN EXCUSE

When I was younger, I successfully used the “but I didn’t know!” excuse any number of times to justify a late homework assignment, a missed curfew or driving 40 in a 25 mph zone.

For better or worse, the “adult” world is far less forgiving.

In “adult” world, not knowing is not an acceptable excuse.

In “adult” world, not knowing always comes at a cost: of time, money, opportunity and/or peace of mind, among other things.

For example:

  • You didn’t know you were supposed to start saving for retirement earlier? That’s too bad.
  • You didn’t realize that employers can search your Facebook profile and see those embarrassing photos of your college graduation party? Bummer bro!
  • You didn’t realize that you wouldn’t like being a lawyer as much as you thought you would? Sorry Counselor, you still have to pay back your loans.

AS A LEADER, IT’S YOUR JOB TO KNOW

If you aspire to lead, your first responsibility is always the same: to know.

To ask questions; to learn; to take responsibility for knowing what you don’t know.

The moment you say “But I didn’t know!” or “If it’s important someone will tell me “you lose the right to lead.

On his great podcast, pastor Andy Stanley shares a simple rule-of-thumb for any aspiring leader:

  • What you don’t know can hurt you
  • There are things you will never know unless you ask
  • You will never ask unless you plan to ask

As a leader you will rarely have “perfect” information but, as Stanley suggests, you can always have a plan to ask.

I learned this the hard way when it came to my new home.

I might have avoided the frustrating grout issue had I planned to ask the builder better questions when he turned over the keys to me.

For example, if I could do it again I would have asked things like:

  • What are the most common mistakes that new homeowners make in the first year of ownership?
  • What are the most common problems I can expect and what can I do today to prepare for them?
  • If this was your home, what are the first three improvements you would make?

While there’s no guarantee that any of these questions would have revealed the need to seal my grout, the probability that I would have discovered that issue, among others, is undoubtedly higher.

THE LEADER’S SECRET WEAPON

What big decisions are you and/or your organization facing today? What is your plan for discovering what you don’t know?

If you’re not sure, let me suggest a secret weapon:

Great Questions

My friend Sanyin Siang, Executive Director of the Duke’s Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics writes:

“The most effective leaders don’t worry about having all of the answers themselves. Instead, they are masters of asking great questions.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Great questions can serve a leader in many ways: they can spur creative thinking, help to uncover blindspots, surface faulty assumptions and build consensus across a team.

If you are a leader – or seek to be one – my suggestion is this: develop your own personal list of great, “go-to” questions.

Specifically, brainstorm a long list of your “favorite” or “most effective” questions. Next, group them into specific topic/issue areas, e.g. strategy, planning, hiring, problem-solving, etc.

Then, when taking decisions in each of these areas, hold yourself (and your team) accountable to working through the list of questions in a thorough and methodical way.

For example, when I am working with teams on questions related to strategy, a few of the questions that we will always ask and answer include:

  • What does “success” look like? How will we know it when we are there?
  • What are the most important assumptions are we making? Which of these assumptions must prove true in order for this to be the right path forward?
  • If the option we are considering was no longer available, what would we do instead?
  • Is this the best use of our time/energy/money right now? Why?
  • If you had to make a case for not doing this, what would it be?

[Click here to download a list with more of my favorites]

THE LEADER’S RESPONSIBILITY

Leadership is hard.

It’s hard to operate with confidence when the only thing you can be certain of is uncertainty.

But leaders who recognize that their first responsibility is to learn, to ask the right questions at the right time, stand a much better chance of being successful over the long-term.

Ben SandsBen Sands is an author, executive coach and founder of Sands Leadership – a coaching and consulting company that helps companies prepare their “next generation” talent to better lead themselves, their teams and the organization. For more great leadership questions, download his free guide: 10 Questions That Great Leaders Ask.