Monday, March 7, 2011

What We Can All Learn About Leadership From an 18 Month Old

I went out to visit my long time best friend, Richard, at his new house on the weekend.  He had just recently moved there with his wife Alison and his two children; Lauren, who is 4 years old, and Justin, who is 18 months old.  

When I arrived, I was greeted by my friend and we chatted briefly at the door, at which point Richard looked at his son Justin, who was cradled in the safety of his father’s arms, and said; “can you say hi to Uncle Dale?”   

Justin’s response; “why?”

Sensing an opportunity for some fun banter with Justin, I launched into a conversation with him that went something like this . . .

Dale: “Why, because I came all the way out here to see you and your sister, your Dad and your Mom.”

Justin: “Why?”

Dale: “Because I like your Mom and Dad, and I think you and your sister are pretty cool too, so I thought I’d come out to see you.”

Justin: “Why?”

Dale: “Because your Dad told me he’d feed me if I came out to see you.”

Justin: “Why?”

Dale: “Because he knew I wouldn’t drive all this way if he didn’t bribe me with food and wine, lots of wine.”

And so our conversation went for about another 10 minutes with me trying to think of ever increasingly creative answers to his single continued response to everything that I said, which you might have guessed was “why?”

On my drive home later I was reflecting on my conversation with Justin and it reminded me of the power of that question; why?

All too often, and even when time does permit, decisions are made, action is taken, without anyone ever asking the question, why?  Why is THIS the right decision?  Why is THIS the right course of action?

I was telling my friend Richard that I was going to write this article, based on my conversation with his son, and after we had been speaking for a while, he told me that one of the best managers that he ever worked for, early in his career, used to ask him why all the time.  He told he that at first he resented the fact that she always seemed to be questioning his decisions, but then he realized that by asking him why, she was creating an environment where she was making sure that he had the proper background for his proposals and such, and as a result, when he had to brief a member of the government on a sensitive issue, (which he needed to do regularly), he was exceedingly knowledgeable on the topic, which always led to a positive outcome because he had done his homework.  He had made sure that he could answer the question of why, even when it was never asked.  He felt that this in turn had contributed to making him a better manager.

For me, it is always important to ask why, but perhaps in particular when it comes to decisions that are made on a repetitive basis, almost as a reflex.  You know the type.  An issue comes up and everyone immediately says “this is what we need to do,” and when you ask why, the automatic reflex again is for everyone to say; “because this is what we always do.”  That, in my opinion, is one of the most important times to ask why, to challenge the status quo.  Maybe the answer is to do the same thing as you have done the last few times that this issue has arisen, but maybe it’s not.  Maybe this is just the easiest, most convenient way to handle the situation without making waves.

When I work with the hospitality students that I mentor, I make it a habit to ask them why, to challenge their assumptions, all the time, and I have spent the time to explain the importance of that question to them, and how they, as the future of our industry, must challenge the status quo, and overcome the question of why in order to take the hospitality business to the next level and to be effective leaders.

We can all benefit from asking why more often, from challenging the status quo.

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