26 March 2007

Questioning Leadership

“Do we decide questions at all?
We decide answers no doubt, but surely the questions decide us.”
- Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

“Human systems grow in the direction that they continually ask questions about.”
- Tal D. Ben-Shahar, Harvard Happiness Professor

Traditional teachers and leaders, preparing people for a defined and predictable future, ask questions for which they know the answer and then judge subsequent results.

We live in a time of such complexity that no one knows the answers in advance. Are we ready to follow a new generation of teachers and leaders who don't offer answers but, instead, focus us on questions? Are we ready to give up on this dated notion of turning to leaders for answers?

"The myth of leadership is a collusion between control freaks and people who don't want to take responsibility."
- Peter Block


Life Hiker said...

Socrates is credited with the concept of basing education and decision making on "questions" - one question after another - in order to identify the fundamental truths of the issue under consideration. That was 2,500 years ago. Apparently we have forgotten how effective that methodology is.

Teachers now teach to tests, burning answers into young brains so that they can be regurgitated on command.

Our national leaders "lead" by assumming the truth of a worldview that they refuse to question. It's not surprising that few are willing to follow.

The first step in industry's accepted problem-solving methodology involves challenging the nature of the perceived problem. Given the success of that methodology, it's baffling that the bureaucrats in education and government have overlooked both that success and the age-old Socratic process in favor of giving us answers that seldom satisfy our intellects.

Maybe that's a question that needs much more debate.

Dave said...

I went to a traditional law school that in the first year used, more or less, the Socratic method.

Looking back, I feel sorry for the professors as they tried to drag us along for the Socratic ride.

By the second year most had abandoned the method; but, I had a Corporations professor that always tried to use it, despite the fact that he was teaching a night class filled with people that worked all day and wanted to be fed the law.

He started calling on me because I one, could, and two, would answer questions. One eventful night we went on for about twenty minutes of question and answer, finishing at just about the end of the period. He announced to the class that he had just experienced his only successful use of the method to teach a class since he had graduated from Harvard.

We did it again a few other times when he was feeling feisty.

That aside, learning to think in narrowing questions is a much better way to learn than being fed answers.

Ron Davison said...

You prompt this thought: leadership is about getting people to care about the question and asking it in a way that provokes the right kind of discussion and action.

I hadn't thought about the success of the method in business and then getting ignored in government and education. People want strong leaders, I guess, which suggests no spoken ignorance or confusion.

Life Hiker said...

It's both comforting and scary to know that even the most momentous decisions are ultimately based on the answers to a very few, but very important, questions.

Some of the questions have to do with facts. How certain are we that we understand the "today" situation well enough to be quite certain of the need for change.

Some of the questions have to do with predictions. What will result if a change is implemented? What factors can improve our confidence in achieving the desired result? What degree of risk is acceptable?

We expect our leaders to lead, to make decisions and implement them, but we are entitled to understand their debates about facts and expected results. If we feel our leaders have been openminded about facts and honest about expectations, we will follow wholeheartedly and share in the outcomes.

Unfortunately, the current administration has confined debates about facts to the like-minded, has created bogus "facts" when necessary, and has based predictions on dogma rather than analysis.

Having been excluded from the administration's decision-making process, Americans have no problem pushing the "deciders" under the bus when their predictions fail to materialize.

Alberto Gonzales will be the next "decider" to be squished because he failed to follow a decision-making process that Americans can buy into.

Peter said...

Two thoughts:

1) this one;

2) and this one.


Ron Davison said...

Reading you reminds me of reading my old hero - Deming. His emphasis on a theory of knowledge ("How do you know what you know?") is still largely ignored, but is a hugely important topic.

Glad you made it back over the great firewall of China. Intriguing article you pointed me to - I quite like Menand's writing on pragmatism but had been less aware of his defense of deconstructists.