Published on 2012/12/11

Leadership Lessons from the Unbeaten Path: Asking the Right Questions for Better Results

Co-written with Victor Chears | Founder and President, Chears & Associates, Inc.—

Leadership training in its current form is not producing effective leaders, and the results are negatively impacting the workforce. Higher education institutions need to throw out the book on leadership training and try a few new strategies to building workplace leaders.

So much is written about leadership and how to be a great leader that there is no reason for another article. Right? Hardly. If all the analysis and advice taught in formal educational leadership programs was truly golden, our universities would be producing great leaders and our workplaces would be full of happy, efficient, high-performing workers. Obviously, that’s not happening. Why? Most leadership training boils down to a rehashing of the same old advice—in different packaging, but offering little that is new.

There is a great disconnect between the university leadership programs, adult education platforms, and organizational needs. Unfortunately, this is not taking us anywhere worth traveling; the beaten path has been beaten to death, and leadership innovation has become a dangerously misused concept. Whether you’re an experienced leader or an emerging one who is participating in a leadership training program, it is time to venture elsewhere.

How do you begin a journey down an unbeaten path? What determines the starting point? Is there a definite answer awaiting you, as much of the traditional leadership advice suggests? Do you just start walking and make it up as you go along? Are the road markers clear? What do you pack for the journey? It can be tough to decide what to do and where to go. It can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking. It can leave us with self-doubt and discomfort. Yes, the unbeaten path can make you shake a little and cause your glasses to fog up. Not to worry; we have been down that path and we are here to take you there. Pack a small bag of trust and open-mindedness, and let’s go.

Before we identify the initial starting points of the unbeaten path, it is crucial to recognize the traits of the beaten path. While this may seem obvious, it is a necessary step to isolate what is going wrong, so that we can move away from it.

The beaten path starts with conventional leadership traits, and leaders are boxed in by the following limitations:

  • Work hard and you will be rewarded.
  • Be loyal to the organization and your team.
  • Tenure trumps competence.
  • Be a good team player.
  • Leaders lead best when they have the answers and delegate accordingly.
  • Leadership education is finite. There is nothing new to teach or learn.

In contrast, the unconventional leadership traits of the unbeaten path operate in accordance with the following principles:

  • Strive for results without excuses. That is, do whatever it takes to get the job done
  • Seek continuous improvement. No matter how good we are, we can always become better—even if it means dismantling everything we’ve already built.
  • The beaten path says work hard; the unbeaten path says work hard at getting better.
  • Give every idea a fair audience even when your “gut” says it will not work.
  • Question everything, including the leader, without fear of reprisal.
  • There is always something new to discover, teach, and pass forward.

How did we arrive at these unconventional leadership traits? What did our experience paths look like?

Dr. Victor Chears:

As an organizational consultant for close to 30 years I can tell you that people in all organizations strive to “do their jobs.” I’ve observed, however, that when things fall apart, it is often because everyone on the team is not fully aware of what others’ jobs are, and so they make ungrounded assumptions about what someone else should be doing or has not done. This results in miscommunications and ill feelings when someone deems that another is “not doing their job,” or is critical without having all the facts. Leaders too often focus on the end product, but miss asking the right questions that could make a difference in the process. Employees often play the innocence card, feigning ignorance—“Oh, you didn’t tell me that”—when explaining why they did something a certain way; this is an approach to job duties and performance that eschews personal responsibility.

Dr. Heidi Maston:

Thirty years of experience in social services and higher education/distance education has shown me one overarching truth: everybody wants to be liked, and few want to be the one who asks the difficult questions. This tendency often comes at the expense of taking risks and daring to think bigger than their immediate field of vision. People tend develop a very set and insular frame of expectations and just stay there, not daring to rock the boat. Somehow, along the beaten path, the notions of innovation, leadership, and creativity became labeled as ego-driven, over-bearing and exclusive. While people are drawn to leadership, innovation, creativity, they often turn on these concepts and resort to writing them off as negative and detrimental.” TThis then leads to what Dr. Chears’ aforementioned “Oh, you didn’t tell me that” game, and the cycle continues.

Chaos reigns supreme when a leader goes off the beaten track. When a leader employs unconventional tactics, the traditional organizational flow is disrupted and the system feels threatened. Given that everyone has read the same leadership materials, has been trained in the same manner, and has certain expectations of groupthink behavior, the one leader that dares to exhibit traits outside of this framework may be hard pressed to find a receptive audience.

Fortunately, we have both assessed the pitfalls of conventional leadership, and we have both tried the unconventional. We have developed our own leadership worldview, comprised of lessons learned from choosing the unbeaten path. Here are a few of the lessons we’ve learned, starting with practices that bog things down and stifle creativity, satisfaction and results:

Dr. Victor Chears:

  • When communication is misaligned, the wrong things get done and the right ones don’t, resulting in finger pointing and the emergence of silos.
  • Subject matter and/or content experts (e.g. financial, technical, IT) tend to keep others, including the boss, at bay, under the guise of: “You wouldn’t understand. Just let me handle it.”
  • Busy work and long hours often cover up incompetence and fear: “Can’t you see how hard I’m working”.
  • Often, organizational cultures do not condone no-holds-barred questioning as an essential practice. And the questions that do get asked are laden with booby traps.

Dr. Heidi Maston:

  • People operate in fear when faced with new perspectives and information. The fight / flight reaction is alive and well in most organizational constructs.
  • Industry specialists are consulted but generally underutilized. They should be heard. They should be respected. They aren’t. They often, unintentionally, make people feel inadequate. A good leader harnesses their knowledge and incorporates their wisdom.
  • Unconventional leaders bring others along on their journey down the unbeaten path. Conventional leaders travel in secret and create a false sense of mystique.

Leading is all about daring to ask the right questions that not only lead to solutions, but shared satisfaction. Leaders who embrace the journey of the unbeaten path are willing to throw out old notions and practices to create better results.

What are the questions traditional Leadership fails to ask in today’s workplace?

  • How did you arrive at that conclusion?
  • Did you brainstorm and/or vet your thinking with everyone who’s involved?
  • Does the team have a shared sense of what success would look like?
  • How invested is each individual in the success of everyone else on the team?
  • What are the probable barriers to success OR where are we most vulnerable?
  • Are the questions being asked the ones that move us forward or do they consist of games of gotcha and/or covering one’s butt?
  • Is leadership utilizing the skills, perspectives, and mind-sets of today’s digital generation and others who did not “grow up” in traditional organizations?

Building upon this last point, can you as a leader get out of the way when it’s in the best interest of all concerned? Who are the real leaders in your organization, and what powers of influence, control, and operational insight do they possess? Remember that leaders aren’t always the CEOs, Presidents, et cetera. Often they are the cultural leaders in smaller, but still impactful, roles. How they lead at their immediate levels should be in direct alignment with the upper levels of control and power. Alignment is important; so is freedom to explore. Provide opportunity for both. It’s also critical to incorporate these tenets into both academic and practitioner-focused training programs.

How does this happen? What are the additional questions that need to be asked from the unbeaten path?

  • Is everyone willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish our goal(s), even if it requires them to do something outside their job?
  • What can we do to equalize the playing field so that each voice feels comfortable to speak up and, then, can be heard?
  • Are there unresolved issues that get in the way and impede progress?
  • How can we work hard at getting better and have more shared interest and fun along the way?

Here are some final recommendations for your journey on the unbeaten path:

Dr. Victor Chears:

  • Know that when the brain hears a question, it automatically goes into problem-solving mode, whether you want it to or not. Build on this natural tendency by incorporating its tenets into the organizational DNA.
  • Find ways to reward the truth, even the unpleasant ones that aren’t what you may want to hear. Make truth the standard, not the dreaded option.
  • Recognize that authentic communication is a muscle worth building.
  • Have a discernment process that differentiates between knowing and believing. Belief systems are powerful but often unsubstantiated.

Dr. Heidi Maston:

  • Reward innovation, leadership, and creativity rather than re-name them as ego-driven, over-bearing and exclusive.
  • Build time for journeys down unbeaten paths. Embrace the risk-takers.
  • Allow for personal growth through truth telling, experience sharing, and discovery. Discourage suppression in the name of ‘getting the job done’
  • Foster a culture of discovery, not recovery.

As tour guides of the unbeaten path, we trust that this brief journey has given you new ideas regarding risk taking, empowerment, and your current leadership practices. When packing your leadership bags for your own journey down the unbeaten path, we hope that you include a supply of actionable and tangible goodies to shift the dynamic of your workplace. Pack well, and with diligent planning, so that those you train and lead become the employees the 21st century desperately needs and so that you become their guide by encouraging them to higher levels of engagement, challenging and, yes, questioning the status quo. Travel well, my friends. We can’t wait to hear of your discoveries, watch your leadership moxie develop and watch you become a beacon of light for the 21st century learner, instructor, and leader!

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Readers Comments

Helena DeVries 2012/12/11 at 10:19 am

Though I appreciate the insights into updated leadership strategies, I think the authors here really assume the worst of most organizations and most employees. If this article is to be believe, people in the workplace are naturally rigid, unchanging, lazy, uncreative, bare minimum, etc etc unless an exceptional and unconventional leader tells them otherwise.

I think this is a false premise. Perhaps you meant to highlight what kind of employees bad leadership can create–but I think you owe human beings a little more credit. I think most people want to be creative, are motivated to do their jobs, and can get excited about the kind of organizational change you describe. And to be honest, I think that the “off the beaten path” methods you describe are becoming increasingly a more mainstream option. Lots of organizations are embracing them, and their employees too.

So great insights, but give people a little more credit!

James Branden 2012/12/11 at 12:38 pm

You don’t come out and say it in so many words, but it seems like one of the most effective ways to put these unconventional leadership tactics into practice would be to substantially change–and probably flatten out–your organizational structure.

Creating a non-hierarchical structure, perhaps one that is arranged into multidisciplinary teams, would eliminate those silos mentioned, throw the notion of “authority” and “the boss” in the traditional way out the window to open up radical questioning, and require people to step up and do more than just “their job” in a rote and plodding way. I have heard of many organizations where such a change shook up the dynamic in a drastic and positive way.

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/12/11 at 12:58 pm

Thanks for your feedback, Helena, you bring an interesting viewpoint.

I’d like to address, what I believe, to be a key point of your input: “… unless… a leader tells them otherwise.”

What Dr. Chears and I are addressing is the need for a leader to break free from the model of “STOP TELLING and GRANTING PERMISSION” prior to open and authentic regarding creative solutions and innovative thoughts.

There seems to be, in our experience, a fear reaction tied to thinking outside the box. An organization that is lead by invididuals who champion, promote and work opening with that lateral freedom (think Richard Branson) harness all of their employee’s ideas and end up with a much stronger organization that more people can get eagerly behind.

Dr. Heidi Maston

Dr. Heidi L. Maston 2012/12/11 at 1:07 pm

Welcome James and good to ‘see’ you today!

I’d like to address this point, “Substantially change -and probably flatten out – your organizational structure.”

I think the best way to summarize what I believe you’re saying is, “The Devil is in the details… so let’s get rid of the details.”

I agree 110%!

When people have greater lateral access, they tend to problem solve more effeciently. Why? Because everyone is playing with the same book. When problem solving and solution building is happening in a hierarchical structure there is a real (or perceived) lack of complete understanding of the intimate details of the problem. So the culture becomes the issue and much time is wasted on ‘understanding’ the people/problem rather than solving the problem.

I think that’s why shows like, “Undercover Boss” are so popular with some individuals. The Boss is always shocked to find what he/she finds and, as anyone who has ever worked a fry machine knows, ‘they just don’t get it.’ I don’t know if the insight gained by the bosses is truly life/culture/corporate changing but it’s a start.

Dr. Heidi Maston

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