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Thought Leadership in Action Series: Asking the Right Questions

By Jan Phillips, MA

True thought leadership requires original thinking. It is a practice that can be learned, or rather rediscovered, reclaimed, with a certain amount of attention and surrender.

As with any creative endeavor, originality in thinking, in being, requires a heightened state of alertness, a bridging of the poles, a show of fearlessness and willingness to forfeit the known for the unknown, the learned for the experienced.

It requires a trust deeper than the sea, for what it asks for is a letting go, an unmooring from the safe harbor of certainty for a journey into the mists of mystery and possibility.

When I was in elementary school, I learned to attach importance to things based on one's willingness to die for them. The whole idea of heroes usually involved a sacrifice of someone's life. Being willing to die for your country was the essence of patriotism.

And as a young Catholic child, the chance to be a martyr for my faith was something I could only hope and pray for. We have learned to associate courage with risk, and with the question "what are you willing to die for?"

But what if we ask "What are you willing to live for?"

If we determine for ourselves exactly what we choose to give our lives to, where we will direct our energy, what crises we'll work to ameliorate or prevent, then we set ourselves on a trajectory that takes a mountainous courage to sustain. We need to refuel constantly to stay the course, to avoid obstacles, to overcome resistance from ourselves and others.

As thought leaders, it is our business to be asking questions-of ourselves as well as others-that help us all redefine what we are living for and why.

The generation that is stepping up to leadership is a generation looking for curriculum and challenges that have an impact, that engage the whole of their fertile imaginations in bridging the gaps we have failed to bridge thus far in our shaping of a culture.

What we're in need of is thought leadership that leads people in two directions: first, into their own deep recesses where they can access their feelings, their desires, their most basic human instincts, and identify what it is they are truly called to.

This is a leadership of creativity and imagination that frees people from their social conditioning, familial expectations, religious and cultural programming long enough to enable their unique originality to surface.

It is a process of self-definition, a washing away of all that is not authentic, a clarifying of one's essence.

The questions are personal: What activities bring you joy and peace? To what do you aspire? What do you perceive as obstacles to your success? What inspires you?

If you could imagine yourself capable of fixing one broken thing, or creating one thing that doesn't yet exist, what would it be? When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? What did you imagine that profession would give you? What would have to happen for you to have that now?

The next step is to move toward fulfillment. Any deep inquiry into the self will lead to a heightened sense of our interconnectedness and interdependence on each other. Who we are, in essence, is revealed to us through our interactions. What we value is revealed to us through our relationships with others. What gifts we have, what talents and abilities we possess, only become real when they are enacted in community.

The very meaning of our lives only becomes apparent to us in our service to others.

Given this, our next questions are directed outwardly. They pertain to the ways we manifest the gifts we discovered in our self-inquiry. They are questions that help us determine what to make of our talents.

As an individual, how can I do what I love while being of use to others? As an organizational leader, how can I create a forum that calls forth the ingenuity of individuals and assists them in applying that toward communal solutions? As a business leader, how can I deliver profits to the shareholders while rewarding fairly all those who made those profits possible? As an educator, how can I make learning relevant and engage the students in real-life problem-solving?

In a radio interview the other day, the host asked me, "How do you help people know what they want?" (I once thought that was a silly question, but have since realized that most of us need help clarifying our deepest desires).

Since our education was more a matter of *what to think* than *how to think*, many of us never learned the process of inner inquiry.

By default, we end up being perfect consumers, going into debt for what advertisers tell us we need and want when what we'd really like is to work less and have a little cabin on a mountain lake-which would be absolutely do-able if we weren't paying for all those other things we really didn't want.

So a crucial part of original thinking is the clear-cutting of all thoughts that are not our own, and the answering of our own deep questions.

If you aspire to lead, then you will need to do this for yourself first, then find ways to help others engage in the same process. The more self-awareness each individual has, the greater the potential of the group to succeed.

When everyone comes to the table from a place of total freedom, with an unadulterated willingness to serve, with full access to their feelings and inner resources, and an awareness of the group's mission and power to fulfill it, then that circle of individuals will be capable of achieving whatever they can imagine.

Excerpted and adapted from the forthcoming book The Art of Original Thinking: The Making of a Thought Leader, 9th Element Press © 2006 Jan Phillips

About The Author
Jan Phillips, MA is a principal with 9th Element group and a master communicator, thought leader, keynote speaker and award-winning author.Her forthcoming title The Art of Original Thinking: The Making of a Thought Leader, 9th Element Press, describes the steps to becoming a Thought Leader and discusses the impact of Thought Leaders in their workplaces, communities and organizations.

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