“To Question is the Answer” is an intriguing title for a talk by a city manager who you might think would have all the answers.
After all, wrote former Lakewood City Councilman Walter Neary in his blog back in June of last year when the candidates for city manager had been narrowed to two, the “city manager is a key role in Lakewood. It’s the city manager who has to execute good government and public policy through the staff of the city.”
He leads, people follow. No questions asked.
Evidently, hopefully, not.
Not knowing what John Caulfield will say at Lakewood United this Thursday, February 20, 7 A.M., Burs Restaurant, 6151 Steilacoom Blvd., I got to thinking just the same about the possibilities.
Maybe the critical skill so necessary for toddlers – to “gain a much more complex understanding of how the world works” and “shows they have a thirst for knowledge” which is why two and three year olds ask ‘why’ so many times – will also characterize the teams to which we belong as adults within the city.
Maybe people are allowed to raise their hands after all and actually not only be recognized but their viewpoint honestly considered.
Maybe just because ‘we have always done it that way’ – the seven last words of the church someone quipped – doesn’t mean there are untouchable sacred cows but that everything is on – and everyone welcome to – the table suggesting that all people do indeed possess skills, gifts, talents and abilities and their contribution needs simply encouragement.
Maybe challenging the status quo – Latin for ‘the mess we’re in’ chortled yet another author/comedian – will be acceptable and enable freedom and creativity within an otherwise moribund organization.
Maybe council members will “slip the leash” of official consensus and declare their reasons for voting as they do – before, during and after the decision is made. As journalist Wilfred Burchett described his own action (“Tell Me No Lies,” edited by John Pilger) when, “as hundreds of journalists ‘embedded’ with the Allied occupation forces in Japan in 1945 and were shepherded to the largely theatrical surrender ceremony, Burchett set out on a perilous journey to a place now engraved in the human consciousness: Hiroshima.”
Maybe objectivity will be rescued from go-along-to-get-along, smiley-face, all’s well unanimity. Also known as cowardice or just as bad: apathy.
Maybe the curmudgeons among us will receive less cudgel – ‘why don’t you just shut up;’ ‘sit down, your three minutes are more than up’ – and more smile for having at least the audacity to suggest the emperor may have no clothes.
Imagine fostering a culture of cynicism and skepticism, a devil’s advocate approach to critical issues – requiring critical thinking – not, mind you, that which undermines leadership but that values the largess of the mission more than loyalty to the man.
Maybe what Caulfield will espouse is what Ken Miller (whose handle is “changeagents”) emphasized in his “checklist for your first 90 days” directed to new department heads. “Our government agencies need leaders — good leaders. Men and women with large expectations and small egos. Men and women who ask big questions and rise above small answers. Men and women who see the good and inspire it become great.”
Certainly, had Wagner Dodge consulted with the other 15 pair of eyes of the smoke jumpers before they parachuted into the swirling smoke and air turbulence of Mann Gulch – sightings that signaled dangerous ground conditions; had the leader had a management style that fostered two-way communication – asking questions and valuing input – long before that fateful August 5, 1949; had Dodge a “to-question-is-the-answer” modus operandi that allowed, even demanded, as many queries and as much information as possible instead of relying on only a single pair of eyes, his own, then what Michael Useem in his book “The Leadership Moment” describes as “the worst fire fighting disaster (to that time) in Forest Service history,” would not have occurred.
I hope I stole Caulfield’s thunder – not in terms of lessening his force or authority but – in wanting, even before I hope he says these things, to be his behind-the-curtain compère or his curtain-call echo that reverberates throughout Lakewood.
In any event Mr. Caulfield, plagiarizing permission is granted.