The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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The Cost of Asking the Wrong Question

November 2nd, 2009 · 1 Comment · Great Questions

Friday’s PonderThis focused on what happens when leaders are unwilling to ask the hard questions for fear that the answers they will find are too complicated, too radical or threaten long held truths.  One great way to distract ourselves from asking the hard question is to argue about a different one.

Friday’s WSJ provided a great example.

Once again, the debate about global warming is in the news.  Data shows that there has actually been global cooling for a few years.  So naturally, those who believe the warming is not man made point to it as an indication that they are, beyond any doubt, correct.  And just as naturally, those who are certain that warming is caused by human activity are equally sure beyond any doubt that the cooling is merely a short term reversal.  Here is a different question for both sides of the debate.

Does it really matter whether or not human activity is repsonsible for warming the planet?

Toss a coin.  Throw chicken entrails, arm wrestle.  Do whatever you want to decide about global warming as human or a natural cycle.  Now, what impact does that have on whether we should be pumping massive amounts of hydrocarbons into the air?  What difference does it make if our manufacturing and food production causes global warming?  Every animal knows that you do not foul your own nest.

One of the best ways to avoid a debate or question that will lead you to an answer you do not like is to politicize it.  It is a leader’s duty to ensure that the questions that get air time are ones that truly matter.  Distraction is one of the go-to tools of the organizational politician, the empire builder or the turf protector.  Look past the smoke stream by asking a few simple but courageous questions:

  • Does the answer to this debate really matter?
  • Would (or even should) we do anything differently based on a clear answer?
  • Assuming we had a clear answer to this debate- what questions would then be on the table for action?

If we woke up tomorrow morning and had empirical and indisputable evidence that human activity was not the cause of global warming, would that mean it was OK to remove all self control on litter, pollution, irresponsible management of industrial waste?  Of course not.

One of the traits of effective leaders I have observed over the years is both the ability and courage to pass beyond the cosmetic questions to find the ones that really matter- and then to invest the time and energy to get to an actionable decision.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Barry Trailer

    Barry,
    Great Monday morning wake up call! Yes, the quality of the questions we ask dtermines the direction in which we think and, in large part, the quality of our lives.
    For example, asking “Why me?” when something perceived as negative happens just causes us to think like a victim? When asking, “What opportunity does this bring me?” can do just the opposite.
    I hurt my back last year and, as a result, wound up working out more regularly, losing weight and becoming more fit. This year I did it again and my trainer invited me to look at the reoccurrence as an opportunity for a whole new level of fitness. It still hurt and was frustrating but I got over/past it sooner.
    Keep up the good work!