Challenge and Response Leadership…

Sitting in Mr. Bednar’s 10th Grade biology class one fall day, an epiphany hit me between the eyes as we were discussing Charles Darwin and his basic premise of “natural selection“.  So if this played out I thought in the “macro” across generations, wouldn’t the same hold true at the “micro” level too? Simply put actions “within generations” affect the survival of the generation as a whole.  Ok, before your eyes start to glaze over, keep with me for a second as the “whole” (macro) of something is made up of the “pieces” (micro) right?  Thus in laymen’s terms, for the “strong to survive” the factors which drive each [individual] decision must be strong enough on their own to allow the decision maker to “play” (or live) to the “next level” thus extending their generation.  While most folks relate this back to Neanderthal mans fight for his survival on the grassy savannas, the same truth holds in the modern world, as we still make life or death decisions all day long.

Think about it for a second, even the simple act of making the decision to change lanes while driving home from work can bring with the ultimate “macro” outcome of “not playing” to the next level or in this case living.  Now compound [all] these potential decisions we make over the course of a day as they will add up to be in the thousands.  Each decision we make is either interrelated to another or directly supporting the next in the “micro to macro” chain.

Fast forward as I grew older entering the business world and started making even broader based decisions with ability to have greater and greater impacts upon not only me, however others also.  The concept above [strong to survive] didn’t leave me as it troubled me that my decision making was taking place from a “unilateral” perspective (being that of my own knowledge base) thus increasing the likelihood there were weaknesses in my decisions which would lead to the fact that my “overall” or macro results would be less then what they could be and even lead to harming others (which some did).

It was here that I started to ask my staff to challenge my decisions, and “challenge” is not meant as “argue” or “debate“.  It simply meant if you see things differently, speak up openly and directly.  Sometimes this would take the form of facts, opinions or even gut feelings (yes those count) if strong enough.  However no matter what the “challenges” were, my job was to provide a compelling “response” back to the “challenge” which didn’t include “because I said so“.  Matter a fact if I found myself being compelled with a lame answer or one that disclosed a personal agenda (which this is also a good way to get those nasty things into the light of day), I would typically stop in my tracks and reassess the request or directive.

Also worth noting, is “I” as the “requester” was the primary judge of “my” response.  As many times we try to fool ourselves with our own “self speak”.  However, when we have to disclose this same “speak” to others, 9 times out of 10 our self induced false hoods stand out like a sore thumb even to ourselves.  It’s very much as if we are on a diet and we tell ourselves [via self talk] it will be “ok” if we eat that giant chocolate chip cookie with macadamia nuts then wash it down with a chocolate shake.  While we can fool ourselves, if we where to turn and try to profess the same to another person, the clarity of our foolishness in perceptions would be blindly obvious.

This in hand, over time “Challenge & Response” became an effective leadership tool as it converted a unidirectional (top down) decision making process into a bidirectional collaboration.  In fact, to further improve the results, I turned the tables and made it go both ways.  Where not only could my staff “challenge” me for a “response“, I could in turn do the same to them.  This also had another positive side benefit as it also separated the wheat from the chaff if you will as if the staff member couldn’t handle the directness of the “challenge & response” protocol, then frankly their ability to lead came under my scrutiny as a leader you always have someone to report to and to support, therefore you better be able to take the heat in the kitchen as that’s where the stove is.

So a couple guidelines for building success with Challenge & Response:

1. This is a “protocol” in that the first step is a “request is made” the second is a “challenge” is issued within or related to the request.  Such a request as an example could be; “please take Main Street down to Acme Auto parts and pick up a new alternator for the delivery truck“.  The “challenge” might be “Are you sure as Main Street is under construction and we also have an unused credit at Bobs Auto which could save us money“.  Here the “response” phase is “that’s a good idea I had forgotten about both of those aspects”.

2. Start out slow, where you’re having your staff use the opportunity to “challenge” you for a while first to demonstrate your openness and second how productive this can be. Then slowly start challenging them as you sense their comfort level building.

3.  When I walk into a situation with new staff as in a new job or role, I typically explain this to them up front so they know what to expect.  No surprises are the best policy to build.

4. Also explain and understand that during “emergency times” or where strict pre-prescribed process are to be followed “challenge & response” should be avoided.  Just think if while Sully was trying to land that jetliner in the Hudson, he and the co-pilot where going back and forth.  In short, “time” took precedence over decision (more on this in a future blog post).

5. As mentioned above, this IS NOT an argument or debate, only a simple exchange of perspective.  On rare occasion this rule has broken down for me and when it did.  It was clear my decision was fouled and I needed to rethink it and backed away from it totally.  During times where I failed to heed this advice, I’ve paid the price.

Later in life, I had the opportunity to visit Charles Darwin’s resting place in Westminster Abby to pay my respects and reflect upon this 10th grade moment and what it has meant to my life today.  It was humbling to say the least…


About Joseph Campbell

As a strong believer in the fact that "people work for people", it has been a life driver to better to understand the complexities of the various aspects which drive efficiency within this axiom, especially the concepts of leadership. Supporting this, I have been fortunate enough to having experienced this as leader on a global basis over the last decade and half. During this time it has been clear there are three core drivers being Life, Leadership and Economics.
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