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February 2009


A significant part of the value we at Sensei add to our clients I believe is helping them face squarely the conversations they need to have which aren’t naturally occuring. This requires courage, discernment and imagination. Underlying the conversations which aren’t taking place is inevitably a key question or questions we aren’t asking. Yet these are often the very questions if unearthed and faced, that would provide the real key to transforming a crisis, or challenge, or plateau and moving on to fresh growth, breakthroughs and possibilities.

So why don’t we ask such potentially transforming questions? There are a myriad of reasons. Some times we despair in advance that there we won’t locate an answer and so indulge in ‘magical thinking’ — i.e. if we don’t think about it, it will go away. Our current economic crisis, trenchant crises like those in the Middle East and Sri Lanka, give the lie to this absurd option. More often, we know there is an answer, but it will require discipline and a measure of pain to implement. So either we shrink from the outlay of energy and focus and perseverence required, or we fear that raising that need when currently things seem fine will be controversial or relationship-wrecking. Truth be told, we often create noble sounding reasons for our own reluctance and laziness here.

We are all culprits in this at some time or another, so I say none of this from a perch of superiority. But I share it with the conviction that good leaders, team-mates, consultants, coaches, friends, lovers and allies of all stripes, have to find ways of gracefully but clearly raising such questions. We have to ask them before we need to…so we can use them as leverage for creating our future.

Corporate Questions

We worked with a company who had a mass exodus of Asian talent. It happened as such things do, in Ernest Hemingway’s words about going bankrupt, ‘gradually then suddenly’. Asians in the company saw their best talent making it to a certain level in the organization and then their careers petering out. Asians that were clearly role-models didn’t seem to make it to the highest echelons of management in this global company. Rather than invest key years with this company, more and more Asian leaders began to move out and on. We were approached as this reached epic proportions to help stem the tide by helping senior leaders learn how to engage and better appreciate the talents and work styles of Asians, and simultaneously to provide coaching for key Asian leaders as to how to connect better with global colleagues and communicate across boundaries. It was, given the urgency, an expensive but ultimately undertaking and made a real impact. But sadly it wasn’t carried through so that it could fully become part of the fabric of this company…to its detriment. The signs were clear…this should have been investigated, and tackled, years ago.

A major global powerhouse continued to underperform against competitors and the market. They have arguably very strong brands and very competent people. But their results continue to lag behind their assets. In other words, if leadership is the value you add to your assets, here there was a negative leadership contribution. The question was often echoed, “How can such talented people continue to produce such mediocre results?” The one answer no one wanted to accept was right under their nose. Namely, none of the key strategic cells had teams running them. They had atomistic, silo-driven individuals, driving their own agendas. Everything had to be constantly negotiated, and every good idea tended to die ‘a death of a thousand cuts’ as every stakholder, arguing for their corner and perspective, insisted on weighing in on just about everything. The real question they needed to ask is, “What are some outcomes that we are absolutely committed to, that will be impossible to achieve working as we do?” And the follow-up, “How will we need to tangibly and sustainably change how we interact and collaborate to enable those outcomes?” For this company, accepting that politics and polarization will blunt both impressive talent and great brands every time, would have paved a way forward.

A global market leader in the logistics business had a founder who was truly larger than life. He epitomized the founding vision and values of this company. It was a company famed for operational excellence. Not always the most innovative, it excelled at execution. And people who joined it were carefully selected for intelligence and balance, and developed into thorough professionals. However, there was no leadership bench strength. At the top, everyone deferred to the founder. And so the direct reports tended to be acolytes, rather than consort battleships. They toed the party line and were essentially implementers of the ‘way we do things here’. Alas as the leader appointed a CEO in his stead, the Directors (all of whom had been elevated under his shadow), within a few years made disastrous strategic calls and ran the business into staggering losses. Moreover, their once vaunted operational excellence became almost an industry embarrassment. The question that should have been asked is, “How can we while having such an iconic leader, develop a real leadership pipe-line and encourage in our leaders, enterprise and market insight rather than just acquiescence and deferential followership?” This would have had implications for who and how they hired, how they developed, how they rewarded and recognized, and it would have meant some challenging but necessary dialogues among and between senior leaders and indeed with their founder.

National Economic Questions

In the United States, we’ve been, of late, living off deficits myopically assuming that we could maintain an economy built on credit cards and vapor. The Chinese need for an export market led to cheap money, and rather than face the post tech bubble recession, we replaced a tech bubble by a housing bubble by manipulating interest rates and the money supply. The line between Commercial Banks and Investment Banks became blurred, complex instruments were invented, bundled, securitized and sent off around the world like financial viruses just biding their time before contributing to a collapse. In the midst of inflated prices and credit issued to those who couldn’t possibly repay their loans, a key question needed to be asked. Namely, “How are we going to keep the level of entrepreneurship and value creation going, through investments and education and appropriate incentives, so we can continue to stimulate the level of growth and prosperity we want?” Also, “How are we going to pay down our debt, what adjustments in consumption, saving, defense and military policy and more are necessary?” The documentary IOUSA painted a harrowing portrait of what would happen if this wasn’t confronted. Due to the financial system collapse, what we are living through is a sneak preview of coming attractions if we don’t make some changes. Happily, given the gravity of the crisis, some of those long overdue questions are starting to at least be considered now.

Marriage and Romantic Questions

This searching for the ‘unasked question’ applies as powerfully in matters of the heart. Imagine a stagnating marriage where the partners essentially still deeply care for each other, but the bloom has gone off the romance. Either there are no kids or they are now off and leading their lives, and one (or more) of the partners has a sinking feeling that they want more passion and romance in life. Desperately afraid of igniting a volatile confrontation by even suggesting all is not passionate bliss 24/7 in their relationship, they may go underground with their resentment…and longing.

As a past counselor I’ve seen it often. One day the mutual boredom gets so palpable, that one of the partners initiates the ‘walk-out’. It’s amicable, and somewhat pathetic, both wondering if they could have done something. Or an extra-marital affair happens and develops, and romance is found in new arms.

What was needed was a non-confrontational conversation early that invites mutual exploration. In Transactional Analysis terms it would be an Adult to Adult conversation initially, moving then perhaps to a Child to Child exploration. So the question might be, “How can we rediscover each other, and amplify our excitement in loving each other and being together?” You may be married to a dolt who says, “No issues, I’m fine.” And we have to hope that is truly a caricature. But if so, you would have to find the conviction to say, “Well, I’m not fine, and so we’re not…but I’d like us to be. Can we explore that?”

Anyone who won’t explore a question relating to a shared outcome presumably of great mutual value is letting you know something about themselves, their commitment, their willingness. While painful, it’s less painful than years of delusional hope when you could have been rebuilding this relationship, or else then truly building a new one.

Educational Questions

In a haunting song in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s THE BEAUTIFUL GAME, it is stated ‘no child is born to hate’. That’s demonstrably true. No child goes out looking to maim and kill their cohorts. Ask a youngster what they want to be when they grow up, few will reply, ‘A mass murderer mommy!’ And put kids of different ethnic backgrounds together when they’re young enough, and they’ll play together, not evaluate each other’s pedigrees.

So hate is a taught emotion. Therefore we can teach something else. So, let’s consider, what are arguably the most necessary skills for success today? Might they include (along with language, math, science and history), cultural knowledge and awareness, emotional and relationship intelligence, learning to set and achieve goals, financial literacy, thinking skills (making us therefore harder to manipulate), ethics and knowledge of other belief systems, and creativity? These and a host of similar buckets of knowledge and skills are sought by adults in droves, with oodles of money being paid to gurus and cultural experts to help us deal with these deficits later in life. Why should we not teach these things to children as part of their entry into life? Imagine a child that understood other faith traditions without being proselytized (in school anyway) by any one of them — and was exposed also to strands of humanist and secular ethics. Imagine a child conversant with the best thinking and creativity skills. Imagine a child who learned to be resilient and to be balance competing appetites, and understood how to manage both their own emotions and those of others? Are not most breakdowns in our planet those of communication, or mutual understanding, of shoddy thinking, or emotionally immature responses to various situations?

Why not educate (coming from the root ‘educare’, to draw out of) children so they can choose and challenge, and move towards win/win outcomes for themselves, others, our planet and our human culture?

It’s a question just sitting there…but it’s easier to teach verb conjugations and annual rainfalls in numerous obscure locations…and then we needn’t re-imagine education or pay teachers like rock stars which we should, as we’re entrusting our future to them in large part.


Whether in business, in national politics, in personal relationships, in educational systems, relative to your health — in almost any aspect of life where we have to produce an outcome, and where quality of outcome matters crucially, this ability to apprehend and articulate the unasked questions, applies.

Look for the conversations NOT taking place, the questions NOT being asked. And you can almost always locate these at the epicenter of our greatest defensiveness, fear and fact-avoidance.

Leaders will insist we ask these questions, because they want to transform the questions into exciting answers, and then live those very answers. Build this faculty, and you’ll shine wherever you work and with whomever you interact. You’ll become a beacon of clarity and potentially a powerful stimulus in otherwise deadlocked areas.

Leaders will ensure we face these questions, ask them, answer them (however iteratively), act on the answers and thereby create new landscapes of opportunity and possibility.

So here’s a question: what questions are you and I not asking? Let’s show our leadership mettle and pick one to ask that has the greatest transformational voltage. And then let’s lead using that question to light the way.