Robert K. Greenleaf tells a story that took place in 1974. He was providing counsel to a chief executive of a large and influential organization. The executive was stuck. He had been attempting solve a vexing problem. After speaking for some time about the problem the executive asked Greenleaf to respond. Greenleaf responded with these words: I have no answer to your dilemma and from what you have told me, you have exhausted every avenue open to you to deal with it. In such a situation, with the problem still urgently needing a solution, I see no course open to you but to set in motion an inquiry to get a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the problem, in the hope that out of this larger understanding will emerge the clue to a new course of action that you haven’t thought of [italics are mine].
Greenleaf noted that as he spoke the executive was becoming more and more agitated. Greenleaf then noted that he glared at me as he pounded his desk with his fist and literally shouted. “…damn it! …I don’t want to understand anything. I just want to know what to do about it.
A Sufi, Yunus, who was a Syrian who died in 1670 wrote: ‘…a man gets an answer to his question in accordance with his fitness to understand and his own preparation [italics are mine].
Greenleaf also noted in the early 1970s that it is crucial that leaders seek first to understand.
What hinders our preparation and hence limits or hinders our fitness to understand? Why do we choose not to seek to obtain a deeper and more comprehensive understanding? Why do we, too often, insist on embracing the executive’s position: …I don’t want to understand… I just want to know what to do about it?
I have no answers to these vexing questions. I do, however, have some considerations and I invite you, gentle reader, to reflect upon my considerations and I also invite you to emerge some of your own.
First, our culture is one rooted in ‘action-first.’ For example, organizations love to ‘roll out’ the latest idea and then strive to ‘fix it later.’ In our culture we take pride in being able to ‘fix’ stuff.
Second, in order to seek first to understand I must be curious enough to engage a deeper inquiry process. I must, among other things, be open to being influenced by what I learn. This is not easy for many of us. One of the reasons that this is not easy is that too often we equate understanding with agreement. Anyone who has had the privilege of having an adolescent in his or her life – or has ever been one of these interesting creatures – knows of what I speak. One of the adolescent’s repetitive refrains is: If you really understood me you would agree with me!
Third, in order to seek first to understand I must not be rooted in ‘surety.’ ‘Surety’ blocks me from being curious, from being open to being influenced and thus from seeking to understand and hence it blocks my ability to understand. If I am ‘sure’ I have no need to ‘seek.’
Finally – ‘finally’ for this entry – in order to seek first to understand I must develop the skill, capacity and discipline for inquiry. The questions we frame will dramatically impact our searching and seeking. Questions open pathways to other questions not necessarily to answers. Questions tend to promote both deeper and broader searching. Too often, it seems, once we hit upon an answer we cease the process of inquiry, thus, questions help us to engage the process of seeking to understand.
As Greenleaf notes, the search might not lead to an answer – with vexing problems (or paradoxes or dilemmas) it seldom does. The search, however, might well reveal a clue. The clue will also be a pathway that reveals more questions and more clues.
Sometimes a solution will emerge. However, if the vexing problem is not really a ‘problem’ but is a paradox or a dilemma a ‘solution’ is not likely to be found. You might recall, gentle reader, that paradoxes require ‘embracing’ a ‘both-and’ and dilemmas require resolution or dissolution.
Thus, seeking to understand first might well help us determine whether we are encountering a problem to be solved, a paradox to be embraced or a dilemma to be resolved or dissolved.
One more consideration. There is a ‘shadow side’ or a ‘dark side’ to seeking to understand. I am thinking of the executive who had difficulty making crucial decisions and he put off making them by saying that he was still seeking to understand. The process of seeking can actually hinder our ability to make a decision.