To celebrate their 20th anniversary Strategy + Business magazine recently published a catalogue of the most influential business ideas throughout history. Their editors and various leading thinkers came up with 400 or so major concepts and leadership principles. This could have been just another list of quotes from great leaders that you see all over LinkedIn, but for me the best part of the whole exercise was their decision to group these grand ideas not into themes or historical movements but under 20 big questions. Question that any leader in business or elsewhere needs to struggle with throughout their career.

They also asked readers to add more questions – and that got me thinking. Not just about my own favourite questions, although more of those later, but of the value of asking questions altogether. The older I get, and the more experienced the leaders I work with the more I realise that there are no universal answers to the difficult management or leadership problems. There are only leadership dilemmas that need to be faced and worked through in the most rigorous way possible given the best understanding of the situation.

The art of asking great questions

There are lots of pressures on leaders to be decisive. And there are some situations where an organisation needs a leader to make a decision, any decision, because the rest of the organisation has exhausted all other possibilities of reaching a sustainable resolution to a problem. But I think these situations are the exception. The most successful leaders that I work with are those that listen well and ask great questions. They know there are no easy answers and they know they need people close to the impact of any decision to dig out the data, wrestle with the implications and work through the options themselves. Asking a great question can help clarify the issues and cut through to the heart of the dilemma – and that’s often the most significant step in finding a set of answers that will work and be sustainable.

In my day job advising collaborations, consortia, public-private partnership and other complex multi-party systems this ability for leaders to avoid jumping to an answer and stick with the difficult questions is even more important. For me it’s a key attribute of successful collaborative leadership.

So what questions would you add to the list?

The S+B article already has such great questions as:

  • How do we prepare for uncertainty?
  • What’s our ideal organizational design?
  • How can I work here and still be me?
  • And – What the hell is leadership?

I’ve thought of so many others you could add – but from the title of this post you can see that I’ve taken my inspiration from a great Johnny Nash song and so I’d go for the line

what should we take – and how much should we give?” as my contribution to the debate.

And I’d recommend listening to more questions than answers as a good way to spend a few minutes of any working day if only to be reminded…

The more I find out the less I know!”