Great question, isn’t it?
Depending upon what tone we use to speak it, it can telegraphs curiosity, ignorance, defiance, debate or (in my case as a young kid) perhaps a scheme to buy time to come up with a better idea.
(There was a great Hyundai commercial last year where a precocious little boy is peppering his next-door neighbor with the question as the man tries to go about his Saturday chores. A modern-day Dennis the Menace and Mr. Wilson, for those of that era.)
Funny how easily we lose sight of that question in our careers and life. The “why” yields to “what” and “when” and “how soon” and “how much.” We get very efficient in our questions and they too often become vehicles for extraction rather than exploration, focused on the answer we want rather than challenging our own thinking.
In our careers, particularly, we figure out pretty quickly that we rise faster and are perceived as smarter by having the right answer, not the right question. Knowledge is more of a trove than curiosity, right?
The conversation changes – or needs to change – when we move into senior leadership, particular at the CEO, managing director or board level, or as a business founder or entrepreneur.
Sure knowledge still matters, but not as much. The web world has shortened the half-life of information in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. In many cases, the “answer” is just a click or two away. In a world being reshaped so radically by technology, social mobility, and new market influences, information starts to decay the minute it is brought out in the light.
Why does asking “why” matter so much in leadership?
It challenges conventional thinking. Your “why” is taken more seriously.
It invites dialogue. It disrupts that all-too-typical human tendency to nod our heads in easy assent.
It builds ownership by others. When people discover an answer themselves – rather than having it handed to them – they have a greater stake in the decision or activity.
It opens everyone up to a deeper understanding and new ideas. Businesses (and our lives, for that matter) can get stuffed with all manner of activities, routines and rituals that have long lost meaning or relevance. What you do andhow you do it is never as durable as why.
It shows you’re a learner, which engenders others to be the same. Ignorance can be a strength, but so can be curiosity.
As a little kid, I used to ask my dad why the sky is blue. He didn’t know and, as I recall, nor did anyone else I asked – or they brushed off my question as if it really didn’t matter. It bugged me enough where it became my second grade science fair exhibit.
Getting to the answer is not the learning; it’s the discovery along the way.