This is part of a series of posts exploring the impact that our relationship with our family has on how we define success.

Successful leaders speak of “leading with doubt.” They understand that coming up with the right questions can lead to better answers from team, not individual, intelligence.

There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.
– Zora Neale Hurston  Tweet This Quote

Commentary on Part Six – Are You Looking for Questions or Answers?

How do you define leaderships? I define leadership as an act of liberation, a freeing up of the best that’s in people, to help them become the best for the world in their own unique way. General Electric former CEO Jack Welch provides insight into what is required to become an effective leader (paraphrased):

“In school, we learn how to answer every question. We want to be the first with our hand up, ready with the right answer. Answers lead to success. The day you become a leader is the day you put that hand down. It is now your job to create the environment and support necessary to help others raise their hands to answer those questions. Your success is measured by their ability to answer, not yours.”

How do we provide that help as leaders, builders of organizations? Fifty-year veteran new anchor Barbara Walters, when asked what was the most important leadership advice she received as a Sarah Lawrence college student, responded: “I learned how to ask the question behind the question.” More on that later!

In their own way, these leaders ask us to love the questions, framing them to support answers that produce desired results. As Voltaire offered: “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”

We all seek personal answers to universal questions. My answers to how to lead a good life were in that box, I thought. Reminds me of a story told in many cultures.

In life we are often wiser for questioning our answers than answering our questions.
– Noah ben Shea  Tweet This Quote

He was considered the brightest star and best hope for his small village in Southern India. It was prophesized that he’d grow into their next great leader. When he became a young man, he was sent to scale the Great Mountain, to seek the counsel of the Great Wise Man (“GWM”) who resided on its summit.

The young man reached the summit and found the GWM, who was expecting the young man. After pleasantries, he asked his question: “GWM, how do I find success by leading my people to joyful, fulfilling lives?”

The GWM responded readily with just one word: “Shoes.” He then turned away, signaling the meeting over. The young man proceeded back down the mountain.

Ten years passed. The young man struggled to follow the GWM’s advice. Frustration grew. After a decade, it was agreed that he should visit again.

He scaled the mounting, hoping that the GWM was still alive. The GWM was in the same spot, waiting for him. His frustration came out, explaining what he had tried and what he had learned, too. Finally, the GWM put up his hand to stop the speaking, and replied in measured tone, “Maybe it’s not ‘shoes’. Maybe it’s something else. Go figure it out.”

The maturing young man returned to his village, understanding better what truly was his path, with confidence that he could serve as prophesized.

If you observe well, your own heart will answer.
– René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz  Tweet This Quote

Even Charlie Brown knows that “in the book of life the answers aren’t in the back.” Answers are important, but they must be your answers. Google probably won’t help, either. As Picasso quipped, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” You need “to listen to the teachings [your] blood whispers to [you].” (Hermann Hesse)

If you’re leading a business, or consulting, you need to listen deeply and reframe questions. Management guru Peter Drucker pronounced there is only one critical question in business, “What business are you in?” Then you need to understand the question behind the question to drill down to specific answers. Here’s an example.

It was 5:00 am in a quiet European hideaway on the outskirts of civilization when we finally learned why this large multinational service company had a significant sales problem: People alienated from their work. We didn’t know why or how it had happened, and consequently, didn’t know what questions to ask to figure out what, could be done. A series of questions had gotten us this far.

I facilitated a showdown with the 12 company division presidents. Neither they nor I wanted to be there. But the CEO ordered us there to stay until we figured out what was wrong and what to do about it.

During the day we did our Cartesian analysis, from examining country sales plans to uncovering detailed accounts of how an executive inadvertently demoralized staff when the tone of his e-mails were misinterpreted. Progress, but we hadn’t found the right questions to uncover the root cause. At night, however, after dinner and drinks, the masks would fall and the real discussions began once someone broke the ice and bared their soul.

It was the second most senior woman in the company. A shy Nordic, quiet and guarded, she spoke for the first time just before dawn: “Every morning for the last seventeen years, I have gone to work believing in what we do. Now, I no longer believe. And if I don’t believe, if I don’t know why we are putting in all these hours, how can the 6,000 people who look to me for guidance believe?”

I was shocked, both by who spoke and what she said. But that was all we needed: Marching orders to see why commitment had crumbled and to fix it. We had a new set of questions—questions about why people had lost faith in the company.

The question is not how do we integrate our faith into our work, but rather, how do we integrate our work into our faith.
– Max De Pree

We spent the next day uncovering sources of her disillusionment and low morale. We discovered that an industry-standard sales policy was considered deceptive by the new, young co-workers. The “12” produced a simple, effective solution. A policy that had triggered an avalanche of sales and marketing failures, at a cost of several hundreds of millions of dollars, would soon be gone.

Just a few months later, morale (and sales) had returned, and my Nordic friend could again answer why she was doing what she was doing. She was developing young people who had rediscovered meaning in their work.

As much as the CEO wanted practical answers, I knew that if we found the right set of questions the company presidents had the answers. How would I have known to change the marketing in two of their divisions of just one of their 100+ tours—which had been marketed like this for over a decade without any problems? The new hires had a different set of ethics than previous workers. Once acknowledged, there was an easy fix and we were back on track. They appreciated it, too!

I was looking for answers in that box in the attic. However, the questions I’d bring to the box would shape what I learned about Dad and myself. It would affect how I interpreted what I found and where I’d go for more information, aware of Mark Twain’s dictum: “The trouble with most of us is that we know too much that ain’t so.”

Inside the box, on top, was a diary (my father kept a diary?!?). I reached in and chose an old wooden cane for my first investigation. The diary placed the cane at 1936. What had happened in 1936 to my father? Why did a 13-year old boy need a cane?

What questions should I be asking about him? About me?
What kind of answers could I hope for?

Can we actually ‘know’ the universe? My G-d, it’s hard enough finding your way around Chinatown.
– Woody Allen  Tweet This Quote

Check out Mark’s series here:

Mark Albion

Author Mark Albion

Mark Albion left his business school professorship to answer his life question: "How can I be a Marxist and still own my own Jacuzzi?" He is now a serial entrepreneur, faculty founder of Net Impact, and author of a series of books exploring meaningful careers, impact entrepreneurship, and success.

More by Mark Albion