Leadership: The Obvious Question

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I know that Christmas has come and gone and we are already rushing headlong into 2013 armed with untainted resolutions and expectations. Reality will meet us at some point but before this happens I do want to pose an important question to get you thinking.

3 Wise menDuring my December break I was given the David Walsh book, Seven Deadly Sins – My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. I must confess to having always been in Armstrong’s corner until recent findings proved beyond doubt the extent of his deception. It was an articulate John Robbie article some time back that first alerted me to Walsh’s book and now that I have read it, it simply adds an irrefutable amount of evidence to the fraud that is Lance Armstrong. Current reports circulating are speculating that he may make a public confession as to his doping. How magnanimous of him! Anyway, let me not get side-tracked by this sad deception but rather come to the point. In reading Walsh’s book he writes about the death of his 12-year-old son John (to a biking accident!) and John’s remarkable ability to ask the unasked question. The question John once asked his teacher (who later relayed it to David Walsh) was one that had to do with the Nativity story. It is a story we have told and heard told hundreds of times yet here was a question that I am guessing you (and certainly I) have never entertained midst all that is familiar about the well-worn story.

It was a question that David (Walsh) used to underpin his investigative journalism and one I suggest could assist you in your own leadership practice. I have always been a collector of great questions and this is certainly one to add to the list.

As we know Mary and Joseph were visited by a band (three is pure conjecture) of wise men (or scholars) bearing gifts of myrrh, frankincense and gold. Educator Ken Robinson tells a wonderful story of a little boy in a Nativity play that played the part of one of the wise men. On making his entrance he proudly announced his gift as, “Frank sent this”.

But I digress.

Now frankincense and myrrh can be used and I am sure were used to good effect by the new parents, but here is the question young John Walsh asked his teacher a question that begs asking: “what did Mary and Joseph do with the gold?”.

It is a good question.

These were poor, humble people who besides being parents to a child that was to change history (talk about a tough parenting gig!) had been given what one can only presume was a fair quantity of gold. What did they do with that gift?

Of course we will never know but it would be an interesting diner conversation to speculate just what they might have done with such a gift. It was one that had the potential to dramatically change their situation and alter the course of their lives. It might have jumped them several notches in the social ladder or perhaps paid for the education of their children, funded some A-grade camels  (out with the donkey), or maybe a holiday cottage on the Dead Sea. Point is we will never know but it remains a detail of the story that has largely been left unexplored.

Good leaders ask good questions. Good leaders look for the ‘unasked question’ – the question that will unlock new avenues and new conversations. In the same way that David Walsh used this question to sharpen and fuel his reporting, it is having the foresight or perhaps courage to ask the obvious question that takes you beyond the obvious. Strategic thinking will be required at all levels of our organisations and in developing such mind-sets and skill-sets, good questions will be an essential tool in that development. Sometimes by not asking the obvious question we miss out on going beyond our present circumstances or context with the result that we get ‘stuck’.

What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold? It took a 12-year-old boy to find such a question, one overlooked by most in our lazy familiarization with the Nativity tale. In the day-to-day activities within your team or organization, what are the questions you might be missing? What is that ‘unasked’ question – that obvious question that once identified, might change everything? It might be a question that is important not for the answers it provides but rather for the mind-set it represents.  We need more of that kind of thinking within our organisations and when you find that ’12-year-old-boy’ – that maverick, make sure you hold onto them!

So we have packed away the tinsel, Christmas trees and festive décor but maybe there is a question from this time that we can take with us into that part of the journey we mark as ‘2013’.  A question that will exercise our thinking and sharpen our focus; a question so obvious to a 12 year old tragically taken before his time yet hidden to the vast majority; a question that has done no favours to a certain Lance Armstrong but that we all could use to good effect in our own leadership practice.

What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold?

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2 thoughts on “Leadership: The Obvious Question”

  1. Colin Phelps says:

    Love it! One of my passions – teaching people to ask the question. How to get people to frame and ask questions that cause learning and change. Then as leaders to surround ourselves with people who will ask us the tough questions. I am currently mentoring one of the best questioners I’ve ever met. One of the key issues we’re dealing with is helping him reverse the negative response he’s had from so many of the people he’s worked with in the past. Viva la question, viva!

  2. Keith Coats says:

    Thanks Colin. Must be great to be mentoring someone who is asking great questions!

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