Leadership & Ed Schein: Pt. 1 “Humble Inquiry”

Humble inquiry 3D cover mockup

Ed Schein passed away one month ago at 94 years old. It has taken me the month to formulate the words for this post after reviewing the half dozen books of his that I own. I had the pleasure of meeting him once in Portland, Oregon in 2015, where he personally signed my copy of Humble Inquiry. He was a giant in my field of Organizational Development…a deep systems thinker with a passion for understanding cultural and leadership dynamics. As time goes by, I also realize the importance of legacy.  With him now gone, I feel urgency around keeping his legacy alive, as if it were an extension of my own (his birthday is one day after mine too!). There are few people other than family that touch me in that way. Then I think about the cycle of life and feel an equally strong urgency. I want to be a big, bold, beautiful female voice in the area of leadership development while I’m still young. It’s my time. The time is now.

Part I. “Humble Inquiry” (Ed Schein, 2013) has a simple mantra “there is power in asking, versus telling”. This blog post is my critique of the leadership development book. I Each of my critiques review the key message of the book, the high-level concepts, the book’s areas of strengths, and where it falls short. I conclude each critique with an overall assessment ranking (1-10 ascending) of its effectiveness in providing the reader applicable lessons in personal and/or leadership development.

Overview: “Humble Inquiry” was a logical choice for me because 1) its short, 2) it builds skill in types of inquiry and 3) because its Ed Schein, who is always a slam-dunk.  He argues that Asking vs Telling is a fundamental issue in human relations. As a management consultant by day, I 100% agree. I see so many wasted opportunities where a problem doesn’t get solved simply because no one wants to ask the question. He gets to the heart of this in his status, rank and role boundary inhibitors chapter.

Key Message: “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person. This book seeks to shows examples of the positive impacts of taking an approach (and attitude) like this. In a world where we always have to be right, I find that curiosity is not rewarded.  Why reward it in kids, then take it away from adults? That doesn’t make any sense…

High-level concepts: There are three kinds of humility. 1) Respect of Elders/dignitaries 2) those who awe us and 3) the here and now humility of people we are dependent on to help us. Last week, I traveled for business and helped set up our internal leadership planning session. I watched my people lead (similar to career counselor) prepare his piece in advance of the executive group to fly in from all around the country. He was so good, visionary yet tangible, that I felt in awe of him. The feeling of humility stuck and I can sincerely recall it at any time. It feels like shyness, like greatness, like vast. What does humility feel like for you? He also discusses four forms of inquiry 1) Humble Inquiry – drawing someone out 2) Diagnostic – evaluating 3) Confrontational – inserting your ideas and 4) Process-oriented – focusing on the relationship and conversation itself. It’s all very meta: you can think simultaneously about the content, the process and the relationship.

Areas of Strengths: I love how Ed always provides the definitions in his work. He is clear, concise, and there is no room for misinterpretation. And what’s most amazing about it is how radical the concept is, given how simple the playbook provides. Asking of someone a question to which they don’t already know the answer? Isn’t that a more fun way to live anyway? Actually being curious about another person, not what they can do for you? There are times when being present is better than being strategic. Like being with your kids, for example. He is also strong in providing prompting questions for the reader.

Supplemental Materials: Ed and his son Peter have a site for Organizational Culture Institute at: OCLI.org (scheinocli.org) I don’t know much about his son, and perhaps we will be finding out more as the bloodline carries his legacy forward…(much like Steven Covey?)

Where it Falls Short: In general, I am a believer in an overarching approach to a framework that contains components. This work has three kinds of humility and four types of Inquiry, which makes it hard to remember all seven facets, let alone recall them in order to “help” someone else.  In addition, a visual would support this work. Schein  provides the Johari Window and ORJI theory in visual format (chapter 6), which can help us examine ourselves more closely, but these are only aspects of reflection, not for skill building in the area of inquiry. I would imagine a table with 3 columns (one per humility) by four rows (inquiry type) filled with example interaction and response would be the “placemat” that someone could take away from this book.

Overall Assessment & Why:  I rate it an 8 out of 10. It’s quick, powerful and thought provoking. More compelling visuals and/or exercises would have given it a 10.