It’s a well-worn tenet that if you’re in senior leadership, your real value is not in knowing everything, but in asking the right questions.
That presents a new challenge, though: Do you wait long enough for the answers?
One of my favorite leadership moments from the movies is the scene in Saving Private Ryan where the Rangers captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, is quietly absorbing the growing debate within his newly formed squad about their mission is to rescue Private James Ryan rather than go after the enemy like all the other units.
“What’s the point of risking the lives of all of us to save one guy?” one of the soldier grumbles. Captain Miller’s response is not what you might expect:
“Anybody got an answer for that?”
Rather than truncate the debate and give the answer he eventually was sworn to uphold, he first created the space to allow his squad to ponder it for themselves. What he heard back was not always right, but it helped inform his leadership of the group, and even revealed the degree to which each member was taking ownership of the mission itself.
In a fast-paced, efficiency-driven business world, it feels awkward, even unproductive, to allow space (and its complement: silence) to have a place. Silence and space are voids to be filled, no?
It is quite the opposite. Space and silence are not devoid or empty or lacking value; they have substance. Space and silence are the level playing field for problem-solving and idea creation. A wide-open group debate without the thumb-on-the-scale influence of the CEO exercises a team’s ability to sort through options, learn the art of self-correction, and generally elbow out the boundaries of their thinking.
It starts with asking a great question, knowing that there probably are better answers out there.
In space and time.