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Kevin Meyer


A Reflective Perspective on Edgar Schein

The humble art of self-inquiry in solitude

Published: Thursday, December 24, 2015 - 16:42

“I will take time to be alone today. I will take time to be quiet. In this silence I will listen... and I will hear my answers.”
Ruth Fishel

One of my great pleasures is going for a walk on the beach a couple blocks from my house. Contrary to the popular perception of California as a land of crazies, crowds, and freeways, Morro Bay is a small working fishing village with 10,000 residents and one stop light, at the southern end of Big Sur and the prettiest drive in the world. There are more than 200 wineries within 30 miles (end tourism bureau advertisement).

And, of course, our 6-mile-long beach with the remnant of a long-dead (hopefully) volcano at one end. Deserted, even during the high season.

A long walk in such a beautiful spot creates a connection between nature, body, mind, and God. A connection often never made while buried in the chaos of normal life. It is a time for reflection and recentering.

How am I doing, mentally, spiritually, and physically? Am I on track to achieve my personal and professional goals? What countermeasures do I need to put in place? What new opportunities can I create? What activities—and thoughts—should I stop?

Regularly asking, and answering, those questions is critical for effective professional and personal leadership.

The walk is also an exercise in observation. I always try to find something I haven’t noticed before, whether it has always been there or is a result of the ever-changing seascape from tides or storms. This exercise has helped me become more observant in other situations.

Zen has a concept called seijaku—stillness, quietude, and solitude. It is in a state of seijaku that we become very self-aware and can harness the essence of creative energy.

“Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty, unfamiliar and perilous....”
—Thomas Mann

My walks, or perhaps walking meditations, on our deserted beach every day or two, have that affect. It’s when I connect the dots and come up with new ideas—many admittedly crazy, some not. I find it sad, and perhaps disturbing, that more and more people seem to find it difficult to enjoy and embrace the power of solitude, of being alone. Many from younger generations, raised in a world of artificial hyperstimulation, seem incapable of appreciating quiet solitude.

In a business world of teams, we may persuade ourselves that we are at our most wonderful in a group, drawing on its power and influence, but as Michel de Montaigne insisted, “the only true freedom comes in solitude.”

The sources of music, painting—and writing itself—are solitary. The presence of others can be a joy, but also a problem. Other people may offer a solution to our problems, but it’s usually a solution to their problems, and if it helps us, it’s usually by luck.

The simple reason we don’t find solutions this way is because we spend very little time with ourselves, and are discouraged from doing so in the modern world.

“People go to the ends of the earth to see the great mountains, and wonder at them, and to explore the great rivers, and wonder about them. But the greatest wonder of them all—themselves—they never look at or wonder at.”
—Saint Augustine

A couple weeks ago some colleagues and I were discussing books we’ve found interesting. Jon Miller suggested Edgar Schein’s Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (Berrett-Koehler, 2013). Those of you who know Jon know he’s a bit of an intellectual powerhouse, so with a little trepidation that the book might not be appropriate for a mental mortal like myself, I downloaded a copy.

I loved it. Schein describes three types of humility and four types of inquiry, focusing in on the power of inquiry based on here-and-now humility. This form of humility happens when we presume to be dependent on someone else because that someone has something we need—perhaps knowledge.

It struck me that, although Schein was intending to describe a relationship between two or more people, his concepts are also very appropriate for our discussions with ourselves—assuming we have them, of course.

Consider the following excerpt:
“What we ask, how we ask it, where we ask it, and when we ask it all matter. But the essence of Humble Inquiry goes beyond just overt questioning. The kind of inquiry I am talking about derives from an attitude of interest and curiosity. It implies a desire to build a relationship that will lead to more open communication. It also implies that one makes oneself vulnerable and, thereby, arouses positive helping behavior in the other person.

“Feelings of Here-and-now Humility are, for the most part, the basis of curiosity and interest. If I feel I have something to learn from you or want to hear from you some of your experiences or feelings because I care for you, or need something from you to accomplish a task, this makes me temporarily dependent and vulnerable. It is precisely my temporary subordination that creates psychological safety for you and, therefore, increases the chances that you will tell me what I need to know and help me get the job done.”

Creating a humble, vulnerable relationship with yourself opens you up to being able to inquire, discover, reflect, and perhaps create change. Accepting yourself for who you are creates peace.

Effective personal leadership, requiring conscious individual reflection, is critical for effective professional leadership. Take some time, alone and perhaps in the grandeur of nature, to humbly ask yourself some tough questions. You might be surprised at the response.

First published Nov. 20, 2015, on Kevin Meyer’s blog.


About The Author

Kevin Meyer’s picture

Kevin Meyer

Kevin Meyer has more than 25 years of executive leadership experience, primarily in the medical device industry, and has been active in lean manufacturing for more than 20 years serving as director and manager in operations and advanced engineering, and as CEO of a medical device manufacturing company. He consults and speaks at lean events; operates the online knowledgebase, Lean CEO, and the lean training portal, Lean Presentations; and is a partner in GembaAcademy.com, which provides lean training to more than 5,000 companies. Meyer is co-author of Evolving Excellence–Thoughts on Lean Enterprise Leadership (iUniverse Inc., 2007) and writes weekly on a blog of the same name.