Often, there are unanswered questions which drive us crazy. We assume that for every question, there must exist an answer. If the answer doesn’t present itself, it must be a case of looking harder for the answer. If we can’t find the answer, we think we should consult with experts for the answer. In fact, we like to consult with many experts, hence the second opinion.
How often have we gone to the doctor looking for an answer to some mysterious ailment, only to have the doctor say that he or she didn’t know why our body did what it did. Usually, we react in frustration or we lose confidence in our doctor, our expert. If he or she doesn’t have the answer, then they must be lacking in knowledge, skill or expertise. So, we decide to get a second opinion. Sometimes, that doctor will say the same thing. Or perhaps he or she will give us an answer that sounds good. We like that answer because it is an answer; and any answer is better than no answer. But what if the doctor’s answer is just a fancy way of saying there is no explanation? We don’t care because that doctor ‘sounded’ like she knew what she was talking about. That perceived certainty is reassuring and satisfying. But it’s an illusion and satisfies our need for certainty.
In the leadership arena, the same situation occurs. A leader often comes upon a tough and complex situation, more often than not involving people. It’s not presented as a people problem. It’s usually presented as one of these:
The project is off-track and we aren’t sure how to get it back on track
We are going through a transition and I need my people to shift their focus to another way of operating
We aren’t being efficient in how we use our time and everything is taking too long
We are losing market to our competitors who seem to be doing a better job of reaching out to the same customers
The VP is a great guy but he doesn’t have the presence to lead the team to meet their objectives
So what is the question? It will often be framed as one of organizational process, talent management, employee engagement, effectiveness, communication or other issues. Thus will begin the search for the answer and the expert to provide it. If the expert doesn’t provide us with the solution we have already concluded we need, then we blame the expert and search for a better expert. Yet, we never question the question. Or our need for an answer.
I recently worked with a team which had a new leader. This kind of change always creates great uncertainty, for the leader and for the team. In this case, the leader very quickly wanted to establish strategic priorities and move forward. I was brought in to run a skills development session on trust and influence, at the end of which the team would create action plans. We didn’t get there. In the course of the session, there was what I call ‘unspokenness” in the room; also known as the elephant in the room. When the elephant appears, everything else that happens is illusory because we are dancing around the issues. The elephant is the container for those issues and for the questions.
Sometimes, the question is hanging over our heads, like the Sword of Damocles. We know that dealing with the question will bring complexity and messiness to what we want to be an orderly process. But what games we play with ourselves. This leader and the team blithely move forward, working on strategic plans with lots of neat deadlines and goals. We all know that the elephant will reappear and the unspokenness will continue and the real work won’t get done. We don’t see the immediate impact of this, but over time, targets and goals are missed.
When we rush to solutions or action, we whiz right by the questions.
Sometimes, just staying with the question is the most powerful action a leader can take. It forces everyone to think about the question, to live the question so that other possibilities have a chance to emerge. There is wisdom in silence because it slows everything down and makes space for our imagination, our creative mind and gives us a chance to make connections.
Just living the question might be the most trustworthy thing a leader could do.