246: Bruce Lee Nailed This Leadership Flaw

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Bruce Lee Nailed This Leadership Flaw

I am a big Bruce Lee fan, but I never thought of him as a purveyor of leadership wisdom. Lot’s of interesting stuff gets posted on Facebook and sure enough the following was attributed to Bruce Lee, “A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer”. Did Bruce really say that? Who knows, but it is a great piece of insight about leadership anyway, so let’s roll with it. Leaders habitually fail to learn from their subordinate’s answers and also overestimate their ability to share their personal wisdom with the team. No one is listening much to each other.

Bosses aren’t learning much from foolish questions, because well, they consider them foolish and of no value. When we have brainstorming sessions in companies, the boss is the judge, jury and executioner of aspirant ideas. The boss runs the session because they are the boss aren’t they. This is interesting and here is a suggestion for all the bosses out there - don’t always be the facilitator of ideation sessions within the company. Let someone else run the session and just be a contributor.

The boss presence in the room in Japan means there is a tonne of deference going on. Yes, I know we have the same thing in Western companies too but the scale in Japan is much larger. The Confucian precepts of respect for authority, respect for men, respect for those older, all play a stifling role in Japan, when it comes to the free for all of brainstorming.

Actually it isn't much of a free for all in Japan, more a filleting process, when ideas are being put up. Bosses tend to whip out their razor sharp Japanese hocho (knife) and slice ideas apart as they emerge. “We tried that already”, “stupid idea, someone give me another one”, as they stand next to the whiteboard calling out for input. As we know, having your idea sliced and diced on the spot by the boss doesn’t inspire the offering up of any further ideas, so we fall silent as the tomb.

Now the foolish question in a brainstorming session is a gift. We don’t treat it as such but that is a mistake. Foolish ideas break the idea generation sequencing. We normally think in sequential, logical terms. This is fine for iterative ideas, for kaizen style small increment of improvement. It is not so helpful for coming up with breakthrough ideas. This is where foolish ideas come in because they force us into places where we wouldn’t normally go.

It makes you react because it is out of scope, beyond consideration, unprecedented, unexpected, irrational, illogical. It forces your brain to start taking that foolish idea apart and start fixing it, straightening it up, getting it into a logical construct, searching for the practical application. This is where real creativity comes in, but we wouldn’t have gotten to that obscure angle if we hadn’t the benefit of the foolish question in the first place. Any brainstorming session that doesn’t tolerate foolish ideas at the idea suggestion stage is bound to be shallow and of little value. Bosses take note – welcome foolish ideas.

The other piece of Bruce’s advice about fools not learning all that much from a wise answer is interesting . In Japan, bosses tend to have the most experience, access to the most valuable information and are plugged into where the business is headed. Naturally these bosses become the fonts of great wisdom within the company. They are serving up pearls to the swine on a regular basis. They imagine that they are having a positive impact, sharing their knowledge and their insight into how to fix problems. The dispensing of all this value however only has value in itself if people are listening to or are executing on what they have been told.

Staff are all convinced they are already busy, busy, busy. Actually busy enough not to need another shiny idea from the boss. The new boss initiative is greeted with mild interest and a secret determination to do nothing about it. The boss is busy too, so after casting the pearl forth the boss moves on, fully occupied with a whole bunch of other stuff. At some point in the future, the boss wonders what ever happened to that initiative that was spoken about. The answer invariably is nothing has been done and nothing achieved and time has been lost.

The error is one of ownership. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still”, is an old saying. Bosses have to get staff to buy into the idea. Passing off pearls of wisdom isn’t enough. These magical contributions have to be acted upon and made reality. The only way that happens with any panache is when the staff buy into the idea and assume ownership. This is the critical transition path of fluffy ideas to concrete outcomes.

Boss communication skills are on display in this regard. They need to be highly persuasive to get staff who are 100% convinced they are too busy already, to squeeze another project into their work lives. In a tumultuous world though, bosses are shooting out orders and advice at rapid fire and imagining they are doing a good job. The truth is they are not getting engagement and commitment to what they are saying.

We have a cool saying in Dale Carnegie, that “people own the world they help create”. This tells bosses to get their staff involved in the creation process and that means allowing them to brainstorm ideas and make foolish suggestions. Bruce Lee was right. We need to better understand what is wise and what is foolish in the workplace.

Engaged employees are self-motivated. The self-motivated are inspired. Inspired staff grow your business but are you inspiring them? We teach leaders and organisations how to inspire their people. Want to know how we do that? Contact me at greg.story@dalecarnegie.com

If you enjoy these articles, then head over to www.japan.dalecarnegie.com and check out our "Free Stuff" offerings - whitepapers, guidebooks, training videos, podcasts, blogs. Take a look at our Japanese and English seminars, workshops, course information and schedules.

About The Author

Dr. Greg Story: President, Dale Carnegie Training Japan

In the course of his career Dr. Greg Story has moved from the academic world, to consulting, investments, trade representation, international diplomacy, retail banking and people development. Growing up in Brisbane, Australia he never imagined he would have a Ph.D. in Japanese decision-making and become a 30 year veteran of Japan.

A committed lifelong learner, through his published articles in the American, British and European Chamber journals, his videos and podcasts “THE Leadership Japan Series”, "THE Sales Japan series", THE Presentations Japan Series", he is a thought leader in the four critical areas for business people: leadership, communication, sales and presentations. Dr. Story is a popular keynote speaker, executive coach and trainer.

Since 1971, he has been a disciple of traditional Shitoryu Karate and is currently a 6th Dan. Bunbu Ryodo (文武両道-both pen & sword) is his mantra and he applies martial art philosophies and strategies to business.

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