The Maieutic Mojo

Posted by jlubans on January 23, 2013

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“Maieutic” is a spelling bee word if there ever was one. It came to me a while back as a Word-of-the-Day. It’s stayed with me because of its etymology:
The word derives “from ‘maieutikos,’ the Greek word for ‘of midwifery.’ In one of Plato's ‘Dialogues,’ Socrates applies ‘maieutikos’ to his method of bringing forth new ideas by reasoning and dialogue; he thought the technique analogous to those a midwife uses in delivering a baby (Socrates’ mother was a midwife)”.
The midwife metaphor is also used to describe the Taoist non-leader:
“Imagine you are a midwife; you are assisting at someone else’s birth.
Do good without show or fuss.
Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening.
If you must take the lead, lead so that the mother is helped, yet still free and in charge.
When the baby is born the mother will rightly say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”*
For me, this is leading from the middle, and demonstrates a leadership that trusts, encourages, and expects participants to be engaged and able to reach goals. The maieutic leader assists, the maieutic leader does not direct.
The book features an example of this type of leadership. You can find it in Chapter 18: "You Have the Resources". It came from an overnight outdoor activity created for a few dozen MBA students. One of their first challenges was to take a pile of canvas, poles, pegs and guy lines and put up a tent – their shelter for the night from the cold wind sweeping off the nearby river. Already twilight, the group grew increasingly frustrated. It kept turning to Gordon, the facilitator, for a solution. Gordon told them more than once, calmly, “You have the resources.” He could have easily stepped in and fixed it. Instead he gave the group the freedom to develop its own solution. It did. They really could say, “We did it ourselves.”

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Caption: My tent on a happier day.
Years later, I found myself in a similar situation: trying to erect an unfamiliar one-person tent in a blowing wind on the bank of the Rio Grande. After a long day of hauling canoes over and through a rocky river bed in Texas’ Big Bend National Park, I was ready to crawl into my tent, but first I had to put it up. The wind bedeviled me and the tent, lifting the floor and sending it flapping. Fed up, I considered finding the zipper and crawling inside, the hell with it. The guide, Burt, probably hearing a few of my choice words, came over and gave me a hint: “John, peg the floor before putting in the poles.” Burt could have said more, but didn’t. Well, the tip was good and I got to sleep in the tent. I suppose I could say, “I did this myself.”
While Gordon was adamant about offering no clues, Burt was less so, “Thank the Lord!” That suggests different levels of maieutic leadership, and that’s what’s needed when the leader is part of a group’s problem solving. Nathan C. Funk elaborates. “(D)ialogue is at the core of a mutual learning process and there is no assumption that the person speaking is necessarily wiser than those who are being engaged."
The notion that one’s co-workers may be as wise as the leader is hard for some leaders to accept. Yet that is what has to happen for the group’s wisdom ever to see daylight. While we may say a group is empowered, it has to know what that means; there are many levels of empowerment, some only a few degrees shy of a dis-empowered state.
Other turn offs for losing the maieutic mojo:
1. As implied above, hedge on empowerment, implicitly not trusting the group to achieve its goals.
2. As a supervisory member, tell the group, as often as necessary, why it’s ideas won’t work.
3. Take charge; you know nothing is going to happen unless YOU do it!
4. Withhold information, not because you want the group to find out what it can do on its own, but because, well, just because.
5. As leader, declare your “solution” before the group’s members have puzzled their way through the options.
6. Finally, tell the group, when at the peak of its frustration, to "work smarter, not harder".

*An abbreviation of a quote from a handout I use in my Coaching workshop. The source is Lao-Tzu’s The Book of the Way, circa 500BC.

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