Can you be a leader who disorientates?

by Peter Young

It is understandable that many leaders have a desire to be liked and to be acceptable. There's no problem with that, so long as it doesn't prevent them from being able to challenge their people, and as I will suggest here, from being able when necessary to actively disorientate them.

Can you be a leader who disorientates?

I was struck by an example from my local gym which is currently being refurbished. The weights room has stayed open, albeit with a new temporary entrance which has been opened up from an external corridor. A gym member entering through this new door yesterday was so surprised she released an involuntary cry of “ah, this is really weird!" She was entering the same old space, with the same old equipment; the only change was a new entrance, which completely disorientated her. She was seeing the familiar things from a completely new angle.

In a similar way organisations and people quickly settle into what can quickly feel like stable ways of being. Networks of relationships get established, ways of getting things done (or not) become habituated, and a sense of predictability and familiarity ensues. And like the surprised gym member, it can feel like an abrupt shock to the system when there is a change.

In a rapidly changing world where 'fixed' ways of seeing things and of functioning carry the risk of inertia and decay, leaders need to be able to actively and regularly disorientate their people. Without this it is very hard to generate the energy and the fresh ideas needed for renewal and adaptation. So how can leaders do this?

The primary tool is the humble question. Rational human thought (whilst awake at least) is generated largely in response to questions, of which we may or may not be conscious. Habitual thought is a response to habitual or unconscious questions. In my experience of business consulting, the question that drives most thought could be expressed as “what shall we (or I) do?" It's usually a reactive question, asked for example in response to something that has arisen. The answers are generally limited to pre-existing understanding and possibilities for action.

It can take a great deal of effort to draw business people away from the seeming directness and action-focus of such a question, to what can feel like less direct questions that open up underlying attitudes and perceptions. Yet this is exactly what leaders who disorientate do, through the conscious practice of asking 'disorientating questions'. There are of course a vast and unlimited number of such questions, such as:

  • What does the current situation look like from that vantage point? And from that one?
  • What does this situation tell us about where we are strong / weak?
  • What is holding us back?
  • What would we do if we weren't afraid?
  • What do each of the stakeholders want that they might not be telling us?

And what's the evidence of a disorientating question? Ultimately of course that it results in fresh thinking. The immediate evidence however will probably sound rather more like this: “Huh!" (silence and thought); “now that's a good question!"