Stealth Leadership

The meeting had ended. I didn’t lead the meeting; I was a participant like the others around the table. As we gathered to leave, the leader gave me a compliment.

“Bill, do you realize that you led that meeting by the questions you asked?” he said.

I had no intention of leading the meeting. I had no desire to set or control the agenda. I was just curious about the issues. My curiosity prompted a lot of questions. The leader’s observation was a compliment and not a criticism. This incident made me realize the value of stealth leadership, flying under the radar of telling and directing, not attracting attention but influencing the process through well-placed questions.

“Stealth” can be a negative concept. It implies being tricky or deceptive. I’m using the term to mean an indirect approach rather than a direct one; it implies “flying under the radar” to secure the ownership from the many. Leadership comes in many shapes and sizes and sometimes it’s good to lead in not-so-obvious ways. One “not-so-obvious” way is asking questions.

Jesus showed how to lead by stealth. He did this by asking questions. There are over three-hundred questions in the gospels. They range from the mundane (“What are you seeking?”) to the penetrating (“Do you believe?”) to the theological (“What is written in the Law?”).  Jesus asked fishermen, lawyers, and a blind man questions. He did not ask because he didn’t know something. He asked because He wanted others to discover “something.” Jesus knew that what people discovered they owned. Our Lord engaged people in the discovery process, using questions as a not-so-obvious way to influence and lead.

Good teaching can be an act of stealth. When I was in college, I attended a teaching methods course taught by a professor who practiced the teaching method of “inquiry.” This educational approach is true to its title — inquiry means asking questions. This professor asked question after question. Inquiry helps people discover things, knowing that what we discover is what we own. When we teach by inquiry, we spend more time asking than telling. The professor practiced leading and teaching by stealth, flying under the radar of telling, using questions to spur discovery. He unknowingly modeled the Jesus way.

Disciplemakers also ask a lot of questions. We ask powerful questions to encourage personal discovery. What we discover is what we own; what we own we take responsibility for; when we take responsibility we’re motivated to act. We fly under the obvious route of prescribing action or answers, choosing to ask questions instead.

Stealth questions take many forms. My friend Justin asks disruptive questions. This is a new category for me. Disruptive questions deliberately challenge people to examine their assumptions, their values, and their priorities. Questions disrupt the status quo of our lives. We let the question enlighten, challenge, rebuke, or correct.

When asked to teach a workshop on question-asking, I made a radical decision. I decided to spend ninety minutes asking questions! I purposefully did not make a statement but led the session by asking questions, lots of questions. My only statements were summaries of how people answered the questions. This was risky for me because what if people didn’t respond to my questions? I went into the session without any back-up except a list of questions. It was one of the most profitable workshops I’ve led.

I’ve been asking questions as a leader and disciplemaker for nearly fifty years. What have I learned? Asking questions starts with curiosity. Author Cacey Tygrett writes: “the point of Jesus’ questions was to stoke curiosity… He invited people to explore and think along with him.” What a great way to describe stealth leadership — we invite people to explore and think with us. We invite them to be curious.

Curiosity leads me to ask questions like, “What did he or she mean by this word or phrase?” “Why was this life incident so important to her?” “How did he feel when they encountered this challenge or obstacle?” Curiosity places the focus on understanding and empathizing with the other person. This means asking more than telling.

Asking people questions is like reading a good novel. I want to discover the main themes of a person’s life. Who are the “characters” (people) who influenced them? What action is taking place in this chapter (this present moment) of a person’s life? What are some of the “main events” in a my friend’s life? Questions unlock people’s stories.

Question asking is hard work. I repeatedly have pastors and leaders tell me, “I was taught a lot of things in seminary but nobody taught me how to ask good questions.” Asking questions isn’t a spiritual gift but a skill that can be learned through practice. But, there’s a catch — it takes self-management. Self-management is not for the other person but for me! I must learn to manage my desire to tell — to teach, exhort, encourage —and replace it with a commitment to ask. It’s easy to give answers but it’s
harder to encourage discovery.

Stealth leadership (and disciplemaking) happens when we ask questions, choosing to lead in not-so-obvious ways. We don’t lead by the strength of our personality, manipulate through emotions, or coerce from our position. Instead, we ask questions to invite change, give ownership, and provoke action. Like our Lord, we practice stealth leadership graciously, wisely, and with intentionality. Good leaders lead with stealth through well-placed questions.

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