Humble Leadership and Humble Inquiry – Edgar and Peter Schein

by | Feb 3, 2023

Dr. Edgar Schein passed away peacefully last Thursday. I and millions of my friends and colleagues owe a huge sense of gratitude to him. I wanted to pay a tiny tribute by recollecting my learnings. We had the occasion to listen to the master himself about the concepts he founded and crystallized. I am sure that, like me, millions of OB and OD practitioners have found these concepts to be the foundation of understanding these complex topics. The topic was “Humble Leadership and Humble Enquiry” presented by Edgar and Peter Schein.

Dr. Edgar Schein and Peter Schein

Edgar Schein and his son and partner Peter presented their considered perspectives on Relationships, Coaching, and Leadership. They covered important ideas on relationships and how it is central to Leadership as well as Coaching. Individual Industrial Psychology went absolutely overboard with concepts like trying to figure out great leaders and good employees in terms of traits and personalities and a good group is where you find the right fit. In Edgar’s opinion, this is all nonsense because Relationship is a fundamental unit of Society and that is where the crux lies.

A relationship is something you exercise almost all the time whether you are aware of it or not. For example, if you pass a stranger, you decide whether to smile at that person or just ignore and continue. This is one form of relationship. After reaching home, you speak to a family member which is another form of relationship. In the night, you may have a heart-to-heart conversation with a friend, partner, sibling, or child. That is yet another form. What is emerging in common is that you are always in some form of relationship. Being alone in a room, writing in a book is also exercising your choice in the form of a relationship with the outer world. We anticipate and handle relationships from the time when we are small kids. How to behave with a stranger and how to
behave with a known person. This is relational socialization.

For decades, Dr.Edgar Schein has been at the forefront of making OB and OD something ordinary people can use. Right from being at the front of learning groups to helping us understand the organizational culture to find our “Career Anchors”, he has given us timeless tools to work with.

His model of organizational culture originated in the 1980s and he identified three levels in them.

  • Artifacts and Behaviours
  • Espoused values
  • Assumptions

Career Anchors is another widely used framework to understand the preference and motives behind career choices. In the mid-1900s, his seminal research identified five possible career anchor groups. (1) autonomy/independence, (2) security/stability, (3) technical-functional competence, (4) general managerial competence, and (5) entrepreneurial creativity. Follow-up research added three more categories. 6) service or dedication to a cause, (7) pure challenge, and (8) lifestyle. We can find this influence in many career/ personality assessment tools.

Almost all coaches have also been influenced by Dr. Edgar Schein’s work. As a coach, I have found his book, “The Humble Inquiry” to be one of the books which have left a deep impact. In this, he has spoken about how being curious and respectful is the best way to help the other person be at their best. Some of my learnings are:

Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling

By: Dr. Edgar Henry Schein

1. Great players like Messi play for the team. He could have scored several more goals if he had been selfish. He is loved and revered by his teammates in addition to millions of other players and fans across the globe. Great teams are made by the relationships that the team builds. A coach has a big part to play in this.
2. Old-fashioned values like openness and trust are particularly important. Asking questions is a sign of openness. Asking them respectfully. Asking questions in a manner that shows your eagerness to receive input is important. This gives the other person a feeling that these inputs will be valued. Trust is difficult to achieve. However, systems based on mistrust tend to actually propagate that very attitude and end up being costly. The MD and CEO of the very first company I worked in out of campus were Dr. PP Gupta. He often said something to this effect, “The cost of building systems based on mistrust is far heavier than the cost of an occasional betrayal of trust.”
3. Humble inquiry reduces the stress caused by difficult conversations. Relationships become strong when there are several options considered. Stakeholders may often strongly favor some options.
4. Putting status and position on display stymies effective communication and relationship building. Many times, those at the top have an attitude of Show and Tell. This stifles creativity and looks down on any show of vulnerability. Status consciousness is a hurdle to Humble inquiry.
5. Obsession with achievements and task completion can also be an obstacle to fostering communication and engagement. It is not that they are not important but pausing and listening or showing genuine curiosity about others is a building block for long-term achievements.

The session I mentioned at the start was done less than 3 years ago, when Dr. Schein was already in his 90s. An abiding passion, a curiosity and generosity of spirit in sharing his knowledge while always humbly enquiring is the template he has left for us. A simple but extremely hard to follow template.


Gayatri Krishnamurthy
Gayatri Krishnamurthy

Gayatri Krishnamurthy

Gayatri has over 30 years’ experience in Human Resources and organisation consulting. Her last corporate role was that of a profit centre head for the Bangalore centre of Mafoi management Consultants (Now known as Randstad). She set up the centre and turned it profitable in a short span of 3 months. Prior to that, she worked with CMC Limited for 5 years as a core member of their Learning and Development team and with John Brown Engineering India as a senior member of their Personnel team. Gayatri is a qualified and accredited as Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by International Coach Federation (ICF). Apart from her decades long coaching practice, she has authored white papers on Coaching and supervised coaches. The level of executives coached have ranged from CEOs, profit centre heads, senior managers including several women leaders and management fresh graduates. She is certified as Senior Practitioner (SP) European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). She has mentored coaches and conducted sessions on coaching skills to aspiring coaches and practising managers.

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