“If you want to be successful and reach your leadership potential, you need to embrace asking questions as a lifestyle.”
~ Maxwell in Good Leaders Ask Great Questions
We don’t think of asking good questions as a leadership skill and yet it is in asking the right questions that we make new discoveries and gain insight into systemic issues. I was recently reminded of the importance of questioning at the first Academy of Contemplative and Ethical Leadership (ACEL). I along with more than hundred people pioneering change in business, education and society reflected, individually and collectively, on questions that open up new perspectives and possibilities that are left unexplored when doing business as usual. Sharon D. Parks posed three questions on the first day of the ACEL gathering.
What would leadership look like if we look at who suffers most?
How do we move from individual to collective wisdom?
How do we understand the role of contemplative practices in leadership?
~ Sharon D. Parks
The One Question All Leaders Need To Ask
Among the many transformative questions asked, the one that immediately hit me had to do with the source of our actions. Otto Scharmer, author of Theory U and senior lecturer at MIT, eloquently framed the question:
“Leaders are usually aware of what they do. They also have some understanding of the process: how they do things. And yet, there is a blind spot: usually they are unable to answer the question, ‘Where does our action come from?’ What is the source of our actions?”
~ Otto Scharmer
So, what is the source of your actions? I encourage you to read Otto Scharmer’s response to this question in one of the many pieces he has written on this, Uncovering The Blind Spot of Leadership. But before you do that, it might be intriguing for you to explore for yourself, if you have not already, what does this question mean to you. When you make a decision or take any action, ask yourself, what is the source of my decision? Asking yourself this question with open awareness and a gentle curiosity can offer many insights into your inner workings that directly impact how you act and your outcomes.
When I ask myself this question
When I contemplated on this question of where do my actions come from, two things that immediately came up for me were the importance of my intentions and the source of my actions in my mind and body. By ‘source of my actions in my mind and body’ I mean tracking the actions to thoughts (narratives or stories we tell ourselves), emotions, and body sensations that the situation triggers. Let me explain what I mean with a recent encounter when I asked myself this question.
In an interaction I was having with a potential client, I noticed I was getting a little eager and out of balance. So I silently asked myself this question, where am I coming from? I noticed three things:
Attitude and Intention: Checking in with my body, I noticed subtle cues (like a tightening in my upper part of the body, leaning forward, shallow breath) that alluded to the fact that I am coming from a place of striving. Underlying the striving attitude I also noticed a desire to impress. Seeing this, I was able to let go of that and relax into genuinely connecting with the potential client as a human being instead of trying to reach a certain goal at this early stage in the conversation.
Default Mode: Once I was able to relax, I noticed I was operating from a mind conditioned to behave in a certain way when dealing with this person, whom I have met before. From this mindset my options for ideas, actions and possibilities are quite limited. Upon noticing this, I silently breathed and let go of the old narrative from which I was operating and stayed alert to the possibilities this moment presented. In the absence of stopping and noticing I would have reverted to my default mode of behavior, which would reproduce the same outcomes as in the past.
Open to New Learning: There was a lightness I experienced when I gave up my attempts to drive the conversation to preconceived goals. I was able to be genuinely curious about the other person and learn more about his interests and approach to work. The exchange felt alive and authentic.
Questions for you
I realize that the ability to tap into my body sensations, attitudes and intentions and source of actions is made easier with practicing mindfulness. I am curious to learn from your experience of your source of actions and how you access the source.
What is the source of your actions?
How do you access the source of your actions?
How does asking this question change your experience of the situation?
Rather than making this an intellectual exercise, please share from personal experience of what this question brings up for you and how asking this question might have changed your experience of a situation.
Based on my experience with this question, I believe we can learn a lot from this question about our intentions, our inner workings, and how we operate. Asking this question can create awareness of our natural inclinations, habitual patterns, and old narratives that confine us to thoughts and behaviors that are comfortable and often sub-optimal. As leaders, especially, this is an important question because the source of your actions determines the outcomes of your decisions, which have ripple effects on everyone and everything affected by your actions.