A successful executive reminded me of a 3,000-year-old lesson that will make you a wiser parent, friend, or businessperson. Ignore the lesson? That might make you a “fool” in the view of one divinely inspired authority.
The lesson involves listening, so let me invite your attention as I recount a story and explore its message …
When I first joined an executive’s work team many years ago, I knew him only by reputation: He was a self-assured, decisive leader who had inherited a vast but underperforming branch of our company and in short order had transformed it into a thriving crown jewel. I looked forward to learning how he had pulled off that feat and was eager to absorb his advice about leading teams and organizations.
But, early on, something odd happened: He asked me for advice and input. And it kept happening. In case of any doubt: Don’t imagine that I was some brilliant oracle of strategic wisdom. He was far savvier than I, so I often wondered why he would bother to consult me, and to consult other team members as well, as it turned out.
In the midst of a casual, one-on-one chat, he might pivot the conversation to some important work issue, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing x or y: What’s your take?” He would listen carefully, never lashing out defensively if I disagreed with his thinking.
Which is not to say that he didn’t have convictions of his own, or that he couldn’t make up his mind: When the time came for action, he moved, and decisively. He would articulate his decision confidently, and off the team would go to execute.
His consultative style eventually made me scrutinize my own approach to life. Up to that point, my pattern had been pretty much the opposite of his. Faced with an important choice, whether a business matter, career move, or money matter, I would typically keep my own counsel, rarely asking friends or mentors for input.
After all, I reasoned: It’s my life, and who knows my own circumstances better than I do? Besides, I was confident in my ability to figure things out: I’m not Einstein, but I’m at least as smart as the next guy. And yet, my boss was smarter, more experienced, and plenty confident, but he sought advice. What did that say about me?
An unpleasant insight dawned. I had been attributing my go-it-alone approach to self-assured confidence in my own judgment. But that started to seem like a flimsy rationalization; maybe my style didn’t signify self-assurance but the very opposite: insecurity. Maybe I subconsciously feared that asking others for advice would make me look weak or indecisive.
In contrast, perhaps this executive’s self-assurance was precisely what made him so comfortable asking for input. It clearly didn’t threaten his ego to do so, nor to acknowledge when someone else had a better idea.
Hence the 3,000-year-old lesson. When doing some spiritual reading not so long ago, I smiled and remembered my former boss when I came across this gem from the biblical book of Proverbs:
Yep, that was this guy, all right.
As I poked around Proverbs, I found it peppered by similar admonitions, like this one:
Or, for those still too stubborn to get the message, here it is in harsher language:
Was Proverbs calling me a fool? Ouch.
It’s been almost three millennia since those texts were written, and we humans haven’t changed much, it seems: Many of us are still too stubborn to ask for advice, or too insecure to do so. In contrast, the really wise, self-assured folks are regularly soliciting the viewpoints of colleagues, friends, family members, and parishioners.
A quarter of Americans feel they have no one to confide in, but if you’re lucky enough to have friends and confidants, be grateful for that blessing, and take advantage of it by asking them for their input now and then.
Don’t take that advice from a fool like me. Take it from Proverbs.