The nature of leading

Work is not about being busy.  We can all do that.  Work is about making a difference.

As Steve Jobs said : “We’re here to put a dent in the universe”.  It doesn’t have to be a big dent every day, but we all want to feel we are having a useful impact on something that matters.  Otherwise why turn up?

Except it’s rarely that simple.  You can be incredibly busy, but situations get complex, people get difficult, and some days you’re the one who feels dented.  In all the the noise and craziness, it would be nice to find more clarity and focus.

That’s always been true, but we seem to be creating a world where it’s needed more than ever.  Where making a difference as a leader starts with what you pay attention to.

The work of a leader essentially boils down to two things:

  • running the business – operating and refining things as they are;
  • changing the business – evolving and transforming things into the future.

Changing something while you are running it is messy.  Partly because businesses get complex, but also because people are involved.  We deal with the tangibles of a business relatively well e.g. the strategy, structure, systems, etc.  But what makes the dent in the universe is not a restructure or a digital strategy.  It’s people using them to do things that make a worthwhile difference, and that’s where it gets messy.

Psychologists tell us any transition from old habits to new thinking is hard, because we like the comfort and confidence that comes from using what we know.  So even when we say we want new outcomes, we often look for them through very familiar lenses and filters.  Which makes the journey that much slower.  And messier.

To make better progress, we need two fundamental skills:

  • reframing – looking from new angles to test our thinking and find new insights
  • refocusing – joining the dots to make new sense of what needs to be done

And it turns out the best way to do both is to develop the art and craft of asking smart questions.  When you need to navigate the messiness of changing something while doing it, smart questions cut through the noise and confusion.

“We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for what’s new.”
Margaret J. Wheatley

The art and craft

Smart questions are questions that help you reframe situations, connect people and refocus your efforts in useful ways.

We all use versions of these questions, but we generally don’t learn them in any systematic way. The art and craft comes from paying attention to which questions are useful for what, when, and with who.

For now it’s simplest to think of them from three perspective

1. Navigation questions

These are questions to help make new sense of the messy situation and decide where to focus. At a practical level they boil down to questions about:

  • Where we are e.g. What are we solving? What’s needed? How do we know?
  • Where we’re aiming e.g. What’s our ambition? What would ‘good’ look like? How will we know we are there?
  • The journey e.g. How might we get there? What’s possible? How do we start?

2. Connecting questions

The challenge with navigation questions comes when people disagree about the answers. Splitting them out helps, but getting real connection between people needs more. Connecting questions are about what matters to people, and why.

First, listen for perspectives that seem confusing, and ask ‘can you tell me more about that?’. Then, once you have more clarity, at some point ask ‘what is it about X that makes it so important to you?’. The art is not just using the questions – it’s caring about the answers enough to find connections between them.

3. Intention questions

For the navigation questions and connecting questions to work, you need to resolve a personal paradox. On the one hand you need your own opinion and perspective – a starting point for entering the discussion. But you also need to hold it lightly, to be genuinely curious about other opinions, and open to changing your mind when new information appears. It helps to think about your intention as two questions: ‘What do I hope to get from the discussion?’ and ‘How do I want to show up and contribute?’. Being clear about intentions before you start generally helps you to navigate how those things get resolved.

What I do

My name is Alan Arnett.  I’m a seasoned thinking partner and coach for leaders who want to make a difference when things get messy.  I show you how to navigate situations, connect people, and create new clarity for yourself, just by changing the way you tackle the many conversations you have every day.

Contact me to ask about:

  • Informal chats to discuss the challenge of leading in messy times
  • Coaching packages to help you learn the art and craft of smart questions
  • Tailored interventions to accelerate the impact of key projects
    (e.g. restructures, mergers, collaborations, innovation, technology, culture)
  • Events, workshops or talks for large groups.

You can connect with me using the links to Twitter or LinkedIn below, or email me using my first name at this web domain.

“All change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about.”
Margaret J. Wheatley



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