One of my favorite scenes in the movie Monty Python and The Holy Grail is “The Bridge of Death.”
To cross the bridge safely, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table must answer three questions correctly. If they fail, they will fall into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
While the stakes aren’t quite as high in the real world, answering questions is a job requirement for leaders of corporate teams.
However, if you’re like most leaders, rather than dreading this task, you love it. Providing solutions gives you a chance to play the hero and show off your smarts. It gives you a nice dopamine jolt and helps you feel in control. Basically, solving problems strokes your ego.
Yes, leaders love questions, but we love offering up our answers even more. I know: I’ve been there as a commercial executive. Finding solutions is addicting.
But, here’s the bad news: That sense of control and power you feel after finding a fix to a problem is fleeting. Because the truth is, you will never have all the answers. But fortunately, your team doesn’t expect you to. They know you are only human. In fact, that’s one of the things they probably like most about you.
Every time you take the bait and believe you must be the one to solve someone else’s problem, you add another responsibility to your plate.
When you start believing you must be the hero rather than a guide, there’s a cost.
The cost to your team is the anxiety that they may feel when they're being micro-managed. The cost to you is the amount of stress you haul around, which can affect your ability to communicate clearly, set priorities, and have transformational conversations.
The minute we begin to think we have all the answers, we forget the questions – Madeline L’Engle.
In reality, what makes you a valuable leader to your teams is the quality of the questions you ask.
So, what’s the best way to break your addiction to the rush you get when you play the hero?
Simply ask another question.
For example, when a team member asks, “How do I …?”
Respond with: “What options do you see?” Or, “What else could you do? Or, “What have you considered so far?”
If someone is truly stuck, move to Plan B and ask if they would like to hear your suggestions. But don’t immediately jump in and save the day. Give them a chance to find the answers themselves.
I give this advice to my executive coaching clients, and it’s also found in Michael Stanier’s book: The Coaching Habit. It’s an excellent coaching resource. I got my copy through Seth Godin’s altMBA program. And by the way, if you want to push your thinking, Seth’s program is a must do.
By just asking an additional question, you place yourself in listening mode. This encourages the person who brought the problem to you to feel empowered, to think through the problem, and to solve it. Asking an additional question promotes autonomy, self-reliance, and trust. It also gets you out of the weeds and minimizes that weight-of-the-world feeling you constantly carry around.
And you never know, it may even lead you to the location of the holy grail.