A few months back, I met a friend for lunch, and he asked me a simple question. The journey that exchange set me on was a great reminder that in just about any context, one of the best ways for leaders to make smart decisions and influence effectively is to ask a few simple questions. Here are seven that come to mind as a result of this experience that can serve us all well as leaders.
A Simple Question
The friend I met for lunch has completed six Ironman-distance triathlons, and he wanted to hear stories from my most recent race. But before the waiter brought the check, my friend asked me a different question – one that came out of left field.
When he’s not training or racing, he is a professor and archeologist. Last summer he had been digging with a team at a little hilltop village in the Middle East. Among the expected pottery shards, he found the unexpected: arrowheads, slingstones, spear points, bits of armor, and grapefruit-sized stone projectiles called ballista balls. It appeared that a previously undocumented Roman battle had occurred there in the first century, A.D.
He knew of my military background, so there at lunch he pushed a map of the finds in front of me and asked a simple question:
“How do you think they got there?”
Six months ago, I didn’t know a ballista ball from a bowling ball, but that simple question set me on a kind of forensic journey of discovery. By looking at each of the artifacts, the patterns they left, and by tapping into other resources, it turns out I could actually reconstruct parts of the battle and begin to answer my friend’s simple question.
For example, I learned that the ballista is an ancient stone-thrower that looks kind of like a giant crossbow. The ellipitical pattern that the ballista balls landed in helped me determine the direction from which they were fired. Ancient writers and modern reconstructions gave me the likely range. The lay of the ground allowed me to pinpoint the probable launch point with a surprising degree of precision. Determining that firing point led to clues about what the rest of the Roman force must have looked like, where they positioned themselves, and even how they got there in the first place. It was fascinating work.
When I started to share my findings with him, he invited me to collaborate with him in writing about the discoveries and what they reveal. Half a year on, the result has been two academic papers totaling 74 pages of text, over 26,000 words, and 43 illustrations. A couple weeks ago we submitted it to our editor, who will send it out for peer review. If all goes well, it may be published in the fall.
So that effort accounts for why my blog post production had fallen off recently. The experience is worth sharing because it highlighted several key things that are good to keep in mind as leaders involved at any level on any kind of project.
Dealing with people, and making decisions based on incomplete information is what leaders do. When we find ourselves trying to decide what the next step is, these seven simple questions can serve us well.
Go to the Source
Academic writing is different than blogging – the tone is more formal, and while I like to keep to the facts in my online writing, meticulously documenting every assertion in a paper is a requirement. Each claim must be backed up with a citation, and in general, the more sources the better, so I made sure to load mine up.
Having five citations looks like solid work, but sometimes it turned out that later writers were all making their claims based on the same earlier source. So I didn’t actually have five sources, I had one – the same as all the other writers.
In leadership as in life, the idea of social proof leads us to think that the more people saying something, the more right they must be. But they may also be simply echoing what a single source said. A simple question might be:
“Who are we listening to?”
Is it the person who really knows, or the one who is merely loudest, or closest at hand? Do we give more credence to five staffers repeating a rumor in the break room, or the one guy down on the production line? As we weigh our decisions, we have to be careful to go to the source.
Consider the Motives
Much of what we know about the first-century conflict we were researching is based on the observations of one primary chronicler, who was actually a participant. What better source than someone who was there, right? Still, there was a call for caution.
In the first years of the conflict, this man was one of the most prominent rebel leaders. Later he was captured and nearly executed. To save his skin he changed allegiance, and went to work for his former enemies. His writing walks a perilous tightrope of competing interests. His ego demanded that he portray himself as a great leader of the rebel movement, but his life depended on not writing things that made the Romans look bad. Everything of his we read we had to consider through this lens. How much was fact, and how much was spin?
As we grapple with leadership problems and attempt to make good decisions, this kind of attention to motive is important, too. A good question to bear in mind as we consider the source of our information is:
“What’s their motive?”
Part of the art of leadership is sorting through the information available and looking for not just for facts, but questioning how we know what we know about a situation. Who says? And why might they say it that way?
Check the Details
Aside from authors, another source I used was modern reconstruction. In one case, an eminent historian built his own ballista according to ancient directions, and then tested it. The results were disappointing. He concluded that ballistae did not shoot nearly as far as scribes of the time claimed.
But deep into a footnote late in the book, he made a quiet admission. He had not been able to successfully use animal tendons for torsion springs the way the Romans did, so he substituted some rope. He shrugged off the change as inconsequential, but the elasticity of the two are very different. The rope he used recoiled in a short, sharp burst; tendon retracts steadily and smoothly, applying power throughout its arc, resulting in greater propulsion. When even the experts can make mistakes, it’s a good idea to ask another question:
“Do they know what they are talking about?”
Studies even demonstrate that in some circumstances, those who present themselves with great confidence may have greatly overestimated their own abilities. Other times, when we encounter someone with expertise in one field, we unconsciously allow that aura of knowledge to extend to areas where they are actually no more knowledgeable than anyone else.
Before submitting our papers to the editor, my friend said it was good practice to re-check every citation. This was tedious and time-consuming – there were a lot! But it also turned out to be a very good idea. Sometimes my citations didn’t quite say what I thought they did the first time around; other times I found better sources along the way. And in one case I mis-typed the hundreds digit of a page number, sending me on an hour-long goose chase.
Re-checking the things we think we are sure of can be an eye-opening experience. Before making big leadership decisions, this kind of diligence can save us from a lot of error or embarrassment. We may feel the pressure to act quickly and decisively, but a really good question worth asking is this:
“How can we be sure?”
We get into trouble when we act in haste rather than with rapid deliberation. Before making the call, it can be a lifesaver to take a beat, and check once more.
Look for Growth Opportunities
It was great to have a mentor/guide throughout the academic writing process. My friend’s patient instruction and guidance helped focus my efforts, set a clear and achievable timeline, and gave me a sense of teamwork.
He was a strong positive reinforcer, making sure to emphasize the things I was doing well so that I would keep doing them. Correction came in the form of suggestion, as he shared ways that I might improve the quality of my research or academic writing. I am certain I am a better thinker and writer as a result of this process.
As leaders, we often find ourselves in the position of mentor or guide. When we are doing it right, we come from a place of patience and understanding. We set the example for others to follow, and offer constructive and supportive observation, with the intent that our teammates become more and more able to function independently and effectively. As decisions loom, it can be helpful to ask this simple question:
“How can this make us better?”
Leaders get things done through people, but really good leaders also understand that they get through to people while they get things done. Knowing this, we can ask this simple question to ensure that when we are done with whatever we are doing, everyone is in some way better as a result of the process.
Put it to the Test
We knew we were going to present some of our material at a symposium, so we did a practice run-through recently. I’m very glad we did. First, it accelerated my effort to get the graphics in presentable shape. Second, it forced me to find a way to condense six months of research into a twenty-minute presentation. In rehearsal, I went five minutes too long, so there’s still work to do.
I got another kind of feedback, too. We practiced in front of a small class just after lunch. Some of the students appeared really interested, while others, one in particular, risked neck injury as his eyes fluttered closed and his head bobbled back and forth. Granted, right after lunch is a tough time slot, but still – that’s useful non-verbal feedback, and I plan to make some adjustments based on it.
That experience confirmed another simple question to ask:
“How can we test this?”
Before going all in on a big decision, leaders look for ways to confirm and fine-tune their actions for best effect. Whether it’s a site visit, running a rehearsal, or starting small, if we proceed in ways that give us room to test and adjust, we have a better chance of getting it right when it really matters.
Consider the Jury
Our papers are with our editor now, and shortly he will send them out for peer review. Knowing this was part of the process made me extra careful with my research. I hope that the experts who assess what we’ve written will find that we have been diligent in our research, clear in our logic, and circumspect in presenting our discoveries.
In the same way, as we interact with our teammates, it can be helpful to keep the “jury” in mind as well. Would we make the same decisions, or act the same way if we knew that our peers were in the room with us watching? If the words we use with our teammates were subject to outside scrutiny, would we choose them a little more carefully?
This simple question can help us stay on track:
“What would the people I respect say?”
As leaders, we are standard bearers – it comes with the job description. Like it or not, our words and actions are subject to review by our teammates. If we’re tempted to cut a corner or turn a blind eye, maybe it can help to imagine people we respect standing there watching us lead, and encouraging us to do the right thing.
A Simple Question – The Takeaway
My friend’s simple question a few months back launched me on a fascinating journey of discovery. The process of researching and producing those papers reminded me that as leaders we have to be very careful with the information that comes to us.
Before blindly accepting what we hear and rushing into action, we improve the odds of making good decisions and leading well by asking a few simple questions:
- Who are we listening to?
- What is their motive?
- Do they know what they are talking about?
- How can we be sure?
- How can this make us better?
- How can we test this?
- What would the people I respect say?
If we answer these simple questions carefully and honestly, whatever decision or project we’re involved in stands a far better chance of being something worth writing about.