Be the Sage

Quick Summary: Focus on asking questions to allow others to discover answers on their own.


As the CEO, the entire organization will look to you for answers.  You may be well-equipped to provide them.  However, to help the entire organization grow, focus on helping others find the answers for themselves so that their self-sufficiency grows.  Your goal should be to make yourself redundant by encouraging others to implement your vision with little direct involvement from you.

Taking a que from any of the Star Wars movies, Yoda might have said, “An all-knowing sage you do not have to be.”  However, acting like Yoda, with his profound comments, is far more effective than Luke Skywalker’s approach of taking action with his light saber.  As the CEO, every day you will be asked for your opinion or to make a decision on some highly important issues that can have a long-term impact on the company.  You will also be asked to make some trivial decisions such as the type of bottled water that should be stocked in the breakroom.  Some of these issues will require you to respond as the leader, while others will require you to respond as the manager of the organization.

Being a sage is described as sharing your observations as a result of your experience and reflection.  It assumes that you have good judgement based on the particular set of circumstances surrounding the particular issue.  Of course, all of these attributes are highly desirable, and some of us naturally are more talented than others at balancing often-contradictory experiences.  As one example, it is easy to rely on experience and express it as, “We have always done it that way in the past.”  In many instances, past experience serves us well.  For example, we do not need a refresher course to see if the flames from a fire will still burn us.  The often-used saying of, “Education teaches one to spell experience,” is well known and called upon quite often; especially when a younger or less-experienced person questions a past practice.  However, with the fast pace of change that we are experiencing in virtually every facet of our lives, another phrase should be added to this age-old advice, resulting in the saying: “Education teaches one to spell experience, and wisdom is knowing when to ignore experience!”

As time goes on and the organization grows, your exposure as the CEO and your institutional knowledge will continue to grow.  More and more people will look to you for direction, advice, and counsel.  It is easy to begin to believe, however subtlety, that you have become THE all-knowing expert on everything.  Unfortunately, we see this all come to occurrence with Hollywood stars that feel free to comment on current events, politics, and social issues, thinking that their star-status, somehow, is transferable to every subject under the sun and into the heavens as well.  What is more disturbing is that many of their fans believe them, and the media amplifies their message when it suits their agenda.  Although this might seem to be an extraordinary or non-realistic example, the movie star – CEO analogy is quite close.

The best way to avoid falling into this trap is to focus on asking more questions instead of providing more answers.  Probably the best response to a question is to respond with, “What do you think,” and then listen.  Follow their response with “Why?” As popularized by Sakichi Toyoda, the Founder of the Toyota Motor Company, the “why” question should be asked successively five times.  By the fifth iteration, the root cause or answer to the issues usually becomes “obvious.”  Without ever suggesting a solution, you, the inquisitor, appear to be a genius!

Encouraging open discussions among a number of individuals in a non-threatening environment is also a crucial step in arriving at sage-like observations.   A critical element in this process is the involvement of individuals at the lowest levels involved in the issue.  As much as we like to think that managers are “on top” of the action of their organizations, the reality is that, with every step up in an organization, insight is left behind.  Virtually everyone one of us can sight examples in which, “Everyone knew except the boss.”

Although most of us are focused on clearly communicating our thoughts and desires to others in order to ensure that they understand us, we miss the most important point.  You need to understand them first!  Going full circle and thinking about what is behind the definition of a sage, it all begins with experience and reflection.  Those activities are characterized by watching and listening, not broadcasting.  There is a reason that Yoda was a person of few words and usually spoke last.  Perhaps Yoda would have said, “Last to speak usually am I.”


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