Stop Guiding, Lead By Exploring Together

You can lead as a guide, with the answers and a lot of direction, or you can lead by exploring together with others. The two ways of leading are very different and produce different results. If you want to learn more and develop the capacity of others, then change your stance and explore together with them. Here’s how. 

When I lived near Tokyo, I played tour guide to visitors. I set the itinerary, got them on the correct trains, and led the way through the crowded streets. I guided these visitors. I knew the way and led from the front. They were supposed to follow me like ducklings, but more often than not, they stopped to take a picture of something, and like a sheep dog I circled around to keep them moving. Guides lead the way and others follow.

My friend, Takeshi and I would go places in Tokyo as well. We may have had a particular location in mind, but not a set way to get there. We knew, in general, which way we were heading, but not an exact path. We would intentionally explore new ways to get to where we were going in order to find new things in the area. Each step of the way we consulted with each other. Neither of us was leading. In a sense, we were leading together as we explored. We found some of the best coffee shops, restaurants, and obscure shops by exploring together.

In your work you can lead by guiding – giving step-by-step instructions – or by exploring together with others. Guiding has some advantages, but if you want to learn new things and develop the capacity of others, lead by exploring together.

How To Explore Together With Others

Leading by exploring together with others requires us change our basic leadership stance. Guides lead from the front with others lined up behind them. The people you guide are rather passive in the process. You say, they do. You lead, they follow. That’s great for fixed tasks, but not for engaging others.

Exploring together means standing side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder. Leading by exploring engages people in the process. We look together, consider together, and decide together.

This shift is difficult for many leaders. We like being the expert. Guides have the answers and get to lead others where they want to go and how they want to get there. We feel more in control. To explore, we need to let go these things in order to learn and develop others. Here are four behaviors of explorers:

  1. Ask. Guides tell others how to do it and where to go. The process of exploring involves asking questions: Which way looks best to you? What leads you to that conclusion? What if we went this other way? What are you seeing?
  2. Listen. Guides speak: telling stories, giving directions, and instructing. Explorers listen. They listen to each other. They listen to their surroundings. They listen to their situation.
  3. Observe. It’s easy to miss things when you think you know what you’re seeing. Explorers pay more attention to their surroundings and the conditions because they know they don’t know. Explorers use all their experience and notice clues, signs, and trends.
  4. Risk. When I’m guiding others, I don’t try new ways. I don’t want to risk getting lost, so I stick to what I know works. Explorers take risk. Exploring is not about efficiency. We’ll occasionally waste our time and effort. The payoff for exploring, however, are the innovations we discover and the increased capacity developed in others.

Exploring together with others produces amazing results. The people we lead are engaged, growing, and equipped to get things done when we’re not around to guide them. And we are learning new things, seeing new perspectives, and innovating new approaches to our work. Sure, it takes a bit of extra time, but it’s worth it.

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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    3 thoughts on “Stop Guiding, Lead By Exploring Together

    1. Great post Keith. As a outdoor adventure guide myself, formally backpacking and climbing, now off-road exploration, I certainly relate to the differences you articulate so well. When I led university students into the Wilderness, we would have two students per group be the leaders of the day. They would often ask us guides what to do. We would often say, this isn’t our experience, it’s yours. So much of the time they would get mad at us, because like many leaders, they were impatience for a solution, instead of wanting to learn how to think for themselves. So often, I find myself slipping back into the bad habit of telling people what is going on. Oh, I ask the questions first, but when they don’t come up with the quick answer, then I cheat and tell them. As you say, that is perhaps fine in the short run, maybe, but it sure doesn’t grow them up. And it is true, it is much harder always being in charge, everyone always dependent on you, the guide to tell them everything. It is so much better when the group can become an efficient team that knows how to think and work together. It is so much for fun, energizing and engaging for everyone.
      Thanks for reminding me of this insight from my past so that it can continue to inform my present and future ministry.

      Bless you,


      • Thanks for sharing your experience Tom! The tension between getting things done and developing people, as you mention, shows up when we are impatient and tell them everything. That maybe works for the short-term, but developing people produces much more in the long-run.