Four questions to ask when things aren’t going well.
shutterstock_226347595Recently I read of some ancient wisdom across many Shamanic societies that is used to treat depression, a sense of being discouraged or when disheartened. When those conditions prevail the ‘Medicine Man / Woman’ or traditional healer would ask one of four questions of the ‘patient’:

  • When did you stop dancing?
  • When did you stop singing?
  • When did you stop being enchanted by stories?
  • When did you stop being comforted by silence?

I found them to be wonderfully insightful and refreshing questions towards a ‘cure’ for such conditions; questions that reaffirm my faith in the notion of the reality that there is always a ‘better way’ – a notion embedded in Native American culture. They are great questions to hold onto during life’s unpredictable journey and questions fit for purpose when the road is rough and we lose our way, as we are sure to do from time to time.
However, these questions and their context got me thinking about the possibility of adapting them to an entirely different context – that of leadership.
Let me explain.
In every leader’s journey there comes a time when results aren’t going as expected, confidence is down and one’s leadership effectiveness is questioned. In life as in leadership, it is often the ‘darkest moments’ – the times when momentum is lost, where we stand to learn the most. Master Navigator, Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, tells gripping stories of the invaluable lessons he has learnt through navigating in the doldrums – conditions where all means of navigation are lost and the Wayfinder has to find another means of safely navigating such treacherous conditions. In a conversation with Nainoa he revealed a startling insight about the attitude toward learning: he shared how he intentionally seeks the doldrums in order to learn the deeper lessons deemed essential to be a ‘Master Wayfinder’.
This led me to wondering whether or not these questions, or a version of these questions that guide the medicine healer, could be used to help leaders navigate the doldrums? When as a leader you find yourself disconnected, battling, feeling ‘lost’ – are there questions that can be asked (of yourself) that might shed some light on the situation?
I believe there are.
Here would be four questions that I think might help when you feel less effective in your leadership practice; four questions that might help identify the very point of disconnection; four questions from which one or perhaps two will offer some insight and hope concerning that disconnection.
Each question offers a type of ‘yin-yang’ approach, an ‘inner-outer’ type of perspective. They may not all be relevant but going through them might immediately clarify which of the questions are relevant and in so doing, where the source of your leadership disconnection is to be found. In fact I would suggest that these ‘mirror’ questions will immediately identify the nature of the challenge you may be facing and as one is relevant, the other might ‘fall away’.
Put another way these questions are a little like the ‘Goldilocks dilemma’ of ‘too hot – too cold’, ‘too hard – too soft’ but by asking and exploring them we discover what might be ‘just right’.
Here then would be the four questions leaders in the doldrums can ask:

  • When did you stop noticing yourself?
  • When did you stop noticing others?
  • When did you stop seeing what was happening ‘out there’?
  • When did you stop seeing what was happening ‘in here’?

When did you stop noticing yourself?
Emotionally intelligent leaders pay careful attention to what is happening on ‘the inside’. In TomorrowToday we believe strongly that, ‘you lead out of who you are’ which implies an intentional monitoring and constant exploration of the internal self. Neglecting this oversight skews everything else. Failure to pay attention to what is happening internally or to do the necessary internal ‘excavation work’ erodes your leadership sense of purpose.
When did you stop noticing others?
The practice of leadership always involves ‘others’. Under pressure some leaders succumb to a level of self-absorption that has them paying attention to only their own agenda, their concerns, their reputation, their feelings and their outcomes. Toxic leadership starts somewhere and the very DNA of toxic leadership is when leaders stop noticing others and subjugate the higher calling of leadership to their own agenda.
When did you stop seeing what was happening ‘out there’?
Leadership is always context specific. When leaders stop paying attention to external disruption and changes they increase the risk of a disconnection between what is happening within their organisation and the prevailing external conditions. Leaders need to spend time ‘looking out the window’ and neglecting this responsibility can have fatal consequences for their organisation. When leaders stop seeing what is happening in the external environment it becomes only a matter of time before their organisation becomes irrelevant.
When did you stop seeing what was happening ‘in here’?
The primary responsibility of leadership is the organisational culture. You will be familiar with the cliché, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast every time’…well it is true. In a world that demands an on-going adaptive response from organisations, seeking to procure this response strategically is not enough. Building adaptive organisations is more a matter of culture than it is about strategy. When leaders stop seeing what is really happening internally they become a liability to the very organisation they lead.
If you feel your leadership practice is not as effective as it once was or that something somewhere is not right, asking these four questions may help you trace the source of where things started to ‘go wrong.’
Paying intentional attention to these four questions could be of immeasurable help in helping to guide your leadership practice even when things are going well.
Finding good questions to be asking yourself and others is important in any leadership domain. Add these four to your list. I don’t think you will be sorry you did.

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