Our Need for “Answers”

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter
Leaders are distinguished more by the questions they ask
than any answers they may have.


We have asserted this to be true since the earliest days of our consulting practice. It sounds good, most of the time. But affirming it in practice is yet another matter. When times are tough and resources scarce, I am struck by how deeply leaders struggle to find the “solution” by imposing on themselves, often unconsciously, the belief that they need to have the “answer”, preferably yesterday! Ironically, the more intense the pressure for “answers”, the poorer our questions become. Powerful persistent inquiry gives way to paralysis by analysis in search for the “answer”.

Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, commented recently, “How do you create a climate in which truth is heard? The first thing is to increase your questions-to-statements ratio. Have someone track it and see if you can double it next year. The leaders in our studies asked lots of questions. They were Socratic. By asking questions, they got the brutal facts, as well as lots of insights and ideas.” (Business Week, August 25/Sept 1 , 2008)

We’re ready to do just that – track the balance of advocacy and inquiry in a given group or organization – and document the impact over a period of time – as a new component to our Disciplined Inquiry methodology.

How does one know, as leader, when to share the “answer” (if you, indeed have one) and when to pose a new, powerful question? If you’re exhausted and feeling way overwhelmed, if not outright discouraged, consider the latter as indeed the more productive way to generate commitment and recover a productive path forward.


  • Mark Solien

    Aloha Steve,

    Your article is excellent. I would put your thinking in the context of simple to complex systems where accurate answers are important in simple and predictable systems. When dealing with complex systems, however, good questions are much more important because they enable you to explore and discover the underlying relationships and interdependencies. Most research and business environments are complex systems and quickly jumping to answers often leads to many unintended consequences which takes allot of time and effort to repair. The apparently slower approach of inquiry when dealing with complex systems leads to powerful new insights and is faster in the long run. It takes a great deal of discipline to do this well.