A Precious Question

Sometimes we blurt out a question that reveals more than we intended.

I spent a morning with the leaders of a well-known arts organization. We worked together to identify the existing challenges and then we looked at the issues from a new perspective. This exercise helped us see the organization as a dynamic whole, moving through an observable past, operating in a dynamic present, and orienting with an emerging future.

We had examined the past and considered the emerging future, but one issue remained – how to create that future.  How to move with purpose through the process of learning, adaptation, and change. I explained how the process of collective learning and change requires more than conventional logic. It requires relationships of shared purpose and trust which give rise to authentic communication, accelerated, collective learning, and the generative co-creation of the future.

Most change efforts fail because of hierarchical helplessness, and the fact that most people cannot rise above ego-driven logic. For the participants to understand and succeed, I proposed an exercise designed to help each person operate in a system of trust and enriched learning. This exercise required them to share their authentic self. My invitation was enticing, but terrifying.

An uneasy participant posed a precious question. “How can I share who I really am with these people, when they might use what I say against me?”

It was a precious question because it illustrated conventional beliefs that we hold but do not publicly voice: People are self-interested; resources are scarce; conflict is natural, organizational life is dangerous; we must filter and control everything we say. Engaging in trusting relationships and authentic communication is dangerous and unwise.

This woman was bravely speaking the thoughts that many of us have, and I celebrated her courage.  As we explored the precious sentence, I pointed out that conventional culture functions to preserve itself.  Fear leads to filtered communication and as a result learning is constrained. The group then tends towards stagnation, and the under-performance of potential. Most organizations unconsciously operate in the dynamics of slow death.

When managers mature and evolve into genuine leaders, they discover that the success of a change effort is dependent on their internal condition. Authentic leadership orbits around the transcendence of ego and the constant pursuit of the common good. In this case, that means having the courage to be our authentic self, no matter what consequences follow.  It invites us to co-create an adaptive culture with expected successes and failures in the process.

As we completed the terrifying exercise, a transformation occurred. The room became a sacred space. Without reservation and with empathy for others, people began to share insights that were previously unavailable. Most expressed commitments to behave in new ways that were impressive. Enlightened by the transcendence of ego, they could see possibilities that were inherently enticing.


  • Examine the precious question carefully, does the same question ever drive your behavior? If it does, what do you do?
  • If everyone is driven by this question, what happens to the culture that governs the behavior of the collective?
  • When someone entertains the question, what would a mature leader advise?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?