The Most Dangerous Leadership Behaviour? Asking the Wrong Questions

The Role of Perception in Asking the Right Questions

Leadership success, observed Peter F Drucker, was not necessarily based on superior talent or intelligence but on applying talent and intelligence to the right things.

Not-good leaders tend to apply their talents and intelligence to the wrong things and ask the wrong questions.

Drucker, in Adventures of a Bystander, tells us how the legendary chairman of General Motors, Alfred D. Sloan, had the uncanny ability to ask the right questions:

"Decisions on people usually provoked heated debate in the GM executive committee.

Once, the whole GM committee seemed to be agreed on one candidate for president of an operating division, who had handled this crisis superbly, solved that problem beautifully and quenched yonder fire with great aplomb.

Mr. Sloan, finally, broke in. ‘A very impressive record your Mr. Smith has,’ he said. ‘But do explain to me how he gets into all these crises he then so brilliantly surmounts?'

Nothing more was ever heard of Mr. Smith."

The Point?

There are really several points here worth discussing. For starters, Mr. Sloan had a different perception than the executive committee.

The executive committee focused on how Mr. Smith solved one problem after the other with great skill. Mr. Sloan focused on why Mr. Smith had so many problems to solve.

Mr. Sloan was implying that Mr. Smith should have been preventing problems from occurring rather than solving them after they occurred.

Perception is based on education, knowledge, and experience. The executive committee had a different perception of Mr. Smith. Mr. Sloan's perception was based on his years of experience in picking people.

More on Perception

In Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Harper and Row, 1985), Drucker reminded us that "when a change in perception takes place, the facts do not change. Their meaning does."

Sloan's past experiences influenced how he viewed Mr. Smith and his supposed accomplishments. Same facts and information but a different meaning.

"Information is indeed conceptual", said Drucker, "but meaning is not; it is perception."

Said Drucker:"One can only perceive what one is capable of perceiving… just as the human ear cannot hear the sounds above a certain pitch, so does human perception altogether not perceive what is beyond its range of perception…"

Many of today's decision-makers for reasons still unclear simply do not have the required perceptions (i.e. knowledge and experience) necessary for asking the right questions… and making the right decisions.

Paraphrasing Harvard's Ted Levitt: "Because many of today's policymakers are not likely to have the wisdom that only deep experience confers, they may be more easily bamboozled by plausible simplifiers and elegant technocrats, and misled by their own hubris."

Drucker's Never-Ending Quest for Asking the Right Questions

The most dangerous mistakes are never made as a result of the wrong answers. Why? The wrong answer to the right question is quickly discovered.

"If your answer produces the wrong, unexpected result, you can correct the outcome, especially if you build in feedback from actual results... in other words, a wrong answer to the right problem can, as a rule, be repaired and salvaged."

The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions and getting the right answers. The right answer to the wrong question takes a lot longer to discover and usually leads to more costly errors.

Many fall victim to viewing the symptoms of a problem as the problem. But truly effective people determine the root cause - the primary factor causing the symptoms.

Finding the root cause of a problem requires training in decision- making. Years ago, Fortune 500 companies required all people with decision making responsibilities to take systematic, well-organized learning programs on how to make effective decisions.

Perhaps it's time to, once again, make decision making among other learning programs mandatory.