Leading With Yes

Dear Courageous Leaders,

Someone once shared with me, “Your default setting seems to be ‘Yes.’ That ‘yes’ might necessarily become a ‘no,’ but the attitude of ‘yes’ inspires us to consider possibilities we might not have on our own.” I don’t know that this is always my default setting. There have been many moments over the years when I have been too focused on the proliferation or execution of my ideas to tend to the ideas of others. But I’ve been reflecting on how leading with yes has become a more integrated piece of my leadership practice.

I remember sitting with a faculty to go over her annual performance evaluation. I found I wanted to skip over the section-by-section review of the form and delve into what might be a more meaningful conversation…and so I did. “What do you want to talk about?” I asked. And the faculty paused for a moment and then she said, “I have an idea. It might be kind of crazy.”

There is a pivotal moment as leaders when we are presented with a new idea: a moment in which we can either squash possibility by immediately analyzing all the reasons it might not work, or nurture possibility by “listening with yes.”  Listening with yes means we are open to the possibilities of an idea; that we are seeking the potential within the idea, the connections we can make to other ideas, and even the insights we can gain about the interests, perspectives, and motivations of the individual sharing the idea.

It was an idea that revealed to me more about this individual’s passion, interests and personality than any box or question on the form. It was a fanciful, inspirational idea that needed more form and substance, and so the rest of our meeting time was spent exploring together the potential of this “crazy” idea.

Listening with yes does not translate into saying yes to every idea that comes your way. As leaders we must be clear about our own mission and purpose and prioritize when and how we allocate our time, attention, and resources. However, if leaders become too guarded with our yeses, we fail to nurture a culture where people are inspired to explore problems and then enact solutions.

Weeks later, I helped organize a team to further envision the possibilities of this idea. And I witnessed the quiet smile of pleasure this faculty wore on her face as she saw the contagious enthusiasm for making this vision a reality. No longer just a fleeting, fanciful thought in her head, but an idea executed with beautiful results for which, this previously overlooked and professionally undernourished, faculty would become the recognized architect.

Leading with yes means embracing a commitment to nurture and support ideation. It means decentering our role as the gatekeeper of actionable ideas and creating an environment in which the people we lead believe and trust in the notion that they have the power, knowledge, insights, and our support, to try something different, as long as it is aligned to the mission of our organization. Not all ideas will be successful in execution or in impact, but just as important as trying new ideas are to strengthening the resilience of an organization and an individual, so too are the experiences of trying and failing. Leading with yes means that we don’t treat the failure as a personal failure, but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Over the next few years, I spent more of my time listening for the ideas I could nurture and support in my leadership role. As I did so, I found more and more individuals reaching out to me with the starter, “I have an idea.” The strength of my leadership no longer defined by the number of ideas I had, but on the number of ideas from others I could help support by listening and leading with yes.

I believe that the accelerated pace of change makes listening and leading with yes more critical than ever before. We cannot afford to maintain the rigid hierarchies in which decisions and new ideas only come from or are approved by those at the top of the organization. This inhibits our ability to be agile in this new era, and it misses the opportunity to allow those closest to the problems to offer their valuable insights and solutions. It also misses the opportunity to grow and nurture the talent of all those who have ideas and just need to hear the message, “I believe in you” and “I invest in you,” that you can express with your “yes.”

Still walking my learning journey,


Questions I’m Reflecting On:

When have I listened with yes in my personal/professional life?

When am I not open to listening with yes?

How do I better nurture and support ideation with others?

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