Posted by: chrismaser | May 10, 2010


Each question is a key that opens a door to a room filled with mirrors, each one a facet of the answer. Only one answer, however, is reflected in all the mirrors in the room. If we want a new answer, we must ask a new question—open a new room with a new key.

We keep asking the same old questions—opening the same old door and looking at the same old reflections in the same old mirrors. We may polish the old mirrors and hope thereby to find new and different meanings out of the old answers to the same old questions. Or we might think we can pick a lock and steal a mirror from a new and different room with the hope of stumbling onto new and workable answers to the same, tired questions.

The old questions and the old answers have led us into the social-environmental mess we are in today and are leading us toward the even greater mess we will be in tomorrow. We must therefore look long and hard at where we are headed with respect to the quality of the world we help shape as a legacy. Only when we are willing to risk asking really new questions can we find really new answers.

The answer to a problem is only as good as the question and the means used to derive the answer. There is, however, no single reality, but rather a multiplicity of realities, the representation of which depends on one’s position in the process of negotiating an acceptable social/environmental view of reality.

If, therefore, we are going to ask intelligent questions about the future of the Earth and our place in the scheme of things, we must be free of scientific opinions based on “acceptable” interpretations of scientific knowledge, and we must be free of economic expedience. In addition, we would be wise to consider the gift of Zen and approach life with a beginner’s mind—a mind simply open to the wonders and mysteries of the Universe.

A beginner sees only what the answers might be and knows not what they should be. On the other hand, an expert often thinks they know what the answers should be and can no longer see what they might be.

The beginner is thus free to explore and to discover a multiplicity of realities, while the expert grows rigid in a self-created prison of a single pet reality, which often turns into an obsession to be protected at any cost—an all too common fate of leaders. Hence, the beginner understands the question better than the expert does. It is therefore a wise and effective leader who keeps a beginner’s mind open to a multiplicity of realities, each of which has secreted within in its possibilities a heretofore untapped opportunity.

We must keep a beginner’s mind if we are going to ask intelligent questions and be open to multiple hypotheses, realities, and explanations, and we must be willing to accept a challenge to our ideas in the spirit of learning, rather than as an invitation to combat. The greatest triumphs of leadership are not, after all, triumphs of facts but rather triumphs of new ways of seeing, of thinking, of perceiving, and of asking questions.

Such triumphs of vision and thought come not only through knowing which questions to ask but also through a willingness to risk what most people think of as failure. The avoidance of risk, says university president Harold Shapiro, is, in the end, “an acceptance of mediocrity and an abdication of leadership.” We must beware of giving in and “raising the flag of failure” too soon, because if we don’t immediately achieve our stated objective, society is quick to judge something as a failure.

But true success or failure is a personal view and lies not in an event itself but rather in the interpretation of the event. When, for example, Thomas Edison’s 10,000 experiments with a storage battery failed to produce results—and society would surely have deemed that a failure—he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This same line of reasoning is implicit in Winston Churchill’s famous commencement speech: “Never, never give up! Never, never give up!”

Before we can get fundamentally new answers, we must be willing to risk asking fundamentally new questions. This means that we must look long and hard at where we’re headed with respect to the quality of our environment and the legacy we are leaving our children. Remember, old questions and the old answers not only have gotten us where we are today but also are guiding us to where we will be when tomorrow becomes today.

Heretofore we have been more concerned with getting politically correct answers than we have been with asking morally right questions. Politically right answers validate our preconceived economic/political desires. Morally right questions would lead us toward a future in which environmental options are left open so that generations to come may define their own ideas of a “quality environment” from an array of possibilities.

A good question, one that may be valid for a century or more, is a bridge of continuity among generations. We may develop a different answer every decade, but the answer does the only thing an answer can do: it brings a greater understanding of the question. An answer cannot exist without a question. Therefore, the answer depends not on the information we derive from the illusion of having answered the question, but rather on the question we asked in the first place.

In the final analysis, the questions we ask guide the evolution of humanity and its society, and it’s the questions we ask—not the answers we derive—that determine the options we bequeath to the future. Answers are fleeting, here today and gone tomorrow, but questions may be valid for a century or more. Questions are flexible and open-ended, whereas answers are rigid, illusory cul-de-sacs. The future, therefore, is a question to be defined by questions asked by those who dare to lead by the authenticity of personal example, each in their own style. To do so, however, a leader must first “stay alive” as a leader.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

Return to the First Set of Posts

• Avoiding Self-Deception

• Over-Investment In Followers

• The Value Of Humor

• Coping With Someone You Dislike

• Imagine Yourself As Different People

• Inspiring Performance

• Nurturing Creativity

• Making Do With What You Have

• Establishing Realistic Objectives

• The Need For Urgency

• Give Counsel, Not Advice

• Burnout

• Leadership Within Organizations

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

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This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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