A Leadership Dilemma

I was recently conducting a series of leadership development sessions for people in the non-management ranks of one of our client companies. So that everyone would have a common experience, each session included similar content and exercises.  During a hands- on learning activity, one of the participants offered some directive suggestions that allowed those in his session to immediately solve the challenge posed by the activity. During the debriefing, the participant acknowledged he was given the answer by a participant from an earlier session, and decided to offer it up.

So leaders, here is the question for you. Was this a good thing or not? On one hand, it is always best to take advantage of the talents and knowledge that exist in a group and use them to solve problems quickly.  On the other hand, by providing the solution, this individual deprived the others in the program of a remarkable learning experience, which previous participants indicated was of great value to them. What is your opinion – was the participant leading, by guiding the group to a quick and effective solution? Or was he simply taking a short cut of the easy, convenient way out.

Situations with seemingly competing correct responses, are commonplace for leaders. That is why leadership is more art than science. Rather than offering you a point of view, I would be thrilled to know what you think is the best answer, in a situation such as this. I hope you will be willing to contribute your thoughtful answer to this perplexing question. Take care and lead on!


  1. Hi Steve, I guess I would ask the participant why he/she chose to give the group the answer. My suspicion would be that it would be along he lines of being popular or being seen to be smart. My guess would be that this person was more concerned with themselves than their fellow participants. They are in a learning program and the point of the process is to learn, not to just get the right answer. My sense is that this person forgot that context and in doing so they forgot about serving their fellow team member’s ultimate purpose for being there. Its just an opinion and I was not there…but my gut instinct is that this “leader” forgot to serve and enable their fellow participants. They forgot the overall point. This seems to happen a lot when leaders lose connection with the vision and allowing others to grow. They start telling and micromanaging and giving right answers…mostly “their” answers. I would be very curious what the person in question learnt from their experience…and it would be very cool if they could arrive at some deeper self reflection in that process… because after all, its not our role to to tell right and wrong either…as you have done so wonderfully…you are holding open the learning…not rushing to conclusions…

    • Thanks for the insights Michael. Many people aspire more to be the star, vs. the star maker. And there is some personal gratification when people associate you with a clever solution to a knotty problem. In this case, I wonder how many people left the session, admiring the problem solver as a leader, vs. simply passing him off as one who kind of cheated. I do hope that leaders realize they have a responsibility to help others grow, and if they choose to simply solve the problem, they have intentionally thought about why they believe that action is best (which sometimes it will be). Take care, and congratulations for reaching the pinnacle level of certified master facilitator of The Leadership Challenge.

  2. I think this could have been a powerful debrief going in a different direction. I’d like to ask this individual a few more questions and depending upon the the group, it might be better to ask him one-on-one.
    – Why did the previous participant share the solution, “insider information”?
    – How did this individual feel about getting “insider information?”
    – What motivated him to go ahead and share “insider information?”
    – How did he feel when he shared “insider information” to the group?
    – How did the group feel about getting “insider information?”
    – What was the value for the group by receiving “insider information?”
    – Are there ethical implications to this behavior? What might they be?
    – How might this experience be a metaphor for behavior in the work setting?
    Depending upon the initiative (like Nitro Crossing), I am “assuming there might be an another solution. Have them redo the initiative but discover a different solution to achieve success. There could be even greater learning opportunities!

    Carrpe Diem!


    • Dave, you have provided some excellent questions, which get to the level of discussions many people need to have, in order to understand the real impact of their behavior. Of course, the activity was the final portion of the day and unfortunately there was no time to really go deeper into the many items you have brought forth. I did find it interesting that all previous participants had been sworn to secrecy, and one obviously let the cat out of the bag. Would love to have some time with that individual as well. Thanks Dave.

  3. I’m delayed in joining the conversation but I certainly agree with all points made. As Michael states, it could be that the participant wanted to look good, to be perceived as the smart one in the group. I was reminded today via another leadership blog of a simple yet unequivocal tenet of leadership: “It’s not about you!” This participant forgot that, or maybe just got caught up in the moment as there was a chance to provide the answer – as stated above, another downfall of emerging leaders.

    The questions that Dave poses are certainly valid and would be thought-provoking for the participant. If I were in a 1-1 coaching session, I would ask similar questions of him to increase his self-awareness, and possibly, to reveal a blind spot. Some of the questions might call him out as a cheater, so I would be careful there. Yet, I definitely think digging into the Why is important.

    In this group setting, I would ask debriefing questions to let the group determine if and how the objectives were met:
    – What was the objective of the activity? (to solve ____) Were there other, unstated objectives? This being a leadership course, what do you think the leadership objectives were?
    – How do you think you did on the problem solving objectives? The leadership objectives? Why?
    – You solved the problem pretty quickly. Why were you able to do that?
    – So ____ had the answer. Indeed, he was a big help in solving the problem. Did that help you meet the leadership objectives too? Why or why not? (this would acknowledge his help but let the group determine which objectives he aided)
    – In what situations does the leader need to provide the answer? In what situations is it best for the leader to allow others to solve the problem?
    – In what situations at your work could you refrain from providing the answer to let others develop their thinking? (this could be a journaling activity)

    This would be a great discussion related to Enabling!

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