Finding Purpose in the Questions: From What and Why to How

[5 min read] In the greatest scope of society, what do we need to create an intelligent democracy? Posing intentional...

[5 min read]

In the greatest scope of society, what do we need to create an intelligent democracy?

Posing intentional questions and structured conversations were (still are) some of my favorite ways to elicit deeper engagement in organizational strategy, environmental education, or when coaching people in their writing and music.  Another involves sharing a story. Let’s start with a story, a quest for new approaches to leadership, before getting to deeper purposeful questions.

A few years ago, I devoured and tested whatever I found on co-creativity, participatory governance and empowerment-based leadership as part of my capstone research. Why that mix? Because they share a common link: when people care about what they do, they take ownership of their actions. They rise to meet their challenges with wonderful results when prepared with the right tools.

I wanted to know:
How can we cultivate informed leadership that emerges from all parts of an organization (or community), instead of “leadership” that requires everyone to look to one individual for direction?

As a friend dubbed it, something “participatory, but strategic.” Whereas most people think of leadership as “top-down”, we believed (and still believe) that for lasting change, people need to act of their own volition toward a shared purpose.

Standing in line at the campus bookstore, I skimmed an organizational behavior book where I found fleeting mention about a vessel called the USS Santa Fe which employed a non-hierarchical, cohesive democratic leadership model. Was this the answer to my mystery?!?

Unfortunately, a supplemental seven word caption next to a photo with no other explanation was a clue instead of an answer.  I ruled out the slim possibility of getting assigned to the Santa Fe when considering to join the Navy too.

Three years later, I’m very glad to realize the radical captain, David Marquet,  who pioneered “leader-leader” on the Santa Fe wrote a book called “Turn the Ship Around!” The book focuses “lead-lead” organizations as he calls them—organizations where everyone takes ownership of their responsibility, where everyone takes initiative and supports others to lead, too.

I’m even more pleased with what I see as I read the book. There’s plenty of praise about its practical contents already—e.g. the role of language to elicit ownership and accountability can be found elsewhere–it’s a great book and I recommend reading the whole thing.

However, I don’t believe many have celebrated the clarity and careful intention put into how he conveys insight with questions.

Three things I appreciated most about the way he uses questions in the book:

1) Finding purpose in structured questions.

I believe he structures his writing with the bigger-picture ideas clearly in mind. It’s subtle, most readers will notice how easy his book is to read, but the forethought that went into the writing deserves tremendous applause too. Note this set of Marquet’s questions at the end of chapter 3.

[Let’s get meta: compare the first three questions to the last three. How do the first three differ from the second half of the list?]

1. What are you willing to personally risk? (Sometimes taking a step for the better requires caring/not caring. Caring deeply about the people and mission, but not caring about the bureaucratic consequences to your personal career.)

2. What must leaders overcome mentally and emotionally to give up control yet retain full responsibility?

3. What’s the hardest thing you experience in letting go of micromanaging, top-down leadership, or the cult of personality?

4. How can you get your project teams interacting differently but still use the same resources?

5. What can you as a subordinate do to get your boss to let you try a new way of handling a project?

6. Do you give employees specific goals as well as the freedom to meet them in any way they choose?

Finished comparing? Good.
I like to think the first 3 questions are the kind that make up the marks on one’s internal compass. They ultimately guide what we choose to do and why we do it in any situation.

These kinds of questions point to big-picture visioning.

Questions 3-6 are great 1-step questions for taking lofty visions forward into reality. It’s the operational and managerial side necessary to manifest vision.

As leaders, our work will always come from stewarding a shared vision and facilitating to manifest its fruition. Good questions can keep us meaningfully connected to it all.

2) A keen distinction between questioning and curiosity.

It’s possible to ask questions, but already know the answer we’re looking for. When that happens, you begin exercising habits for perfunctory reasons and stopped caring about something or someone. Curiosity starts with allowing what we really don’t know to emerge.

3) Timeless questions focused on the takeaway ideas at the end of each chapter.

Questions are common best practice, most everyone has seen a list of questions in their textbooks (typically referred to as “homework” for students). However, it’s refreshing to see thoughtful, timeless strategic questions that directly and efficiently align with the every part of the story being told in each chapter (for example, here’s an excerpt). They’re shaped with curiosity in mind rather than righteous expectations.

Good questions endure beyond good answers in their utility when framed to seek answers with timeless purpose.

When asked with timeless purpose, the worth of a good question will outlast the value of the answer–it allows you to find many good answers time and again.

In any organization, curiosity and purposeful questions cultivate deeper engagement and emancipate leaders.

You can take questions with you knowing what you want, and create context-appropriate answers that are adapted to the situation. You invite solutions to emerge from reality, rather than by “leading” by forcing a solution onto the situation before discovering whether it’s truly relevant to your circumstance.


A closing note about the book

In some ways I believe Marquete’s story and findings are a triumph of humanity. It also presents an unlikely paradox:

A U.S. Navy nuclear attack submarine captain pioneers participatory leadership. He does most of it by advancing the use of language to emancipate ourselves and those we directly interact with.

Think about those implications. “Lead-lead”, a system of governance crucial for participants to create a vibrant resilience and peace, has its origins in the military.

Military—in essence a hierarchical institution. For some it seeks to protect. For others, it discourages, and when necessary, dis-empowers or annihilates assailants in warfare.

Yet the broader intention for what David Marquet’s leader-leader approach aspires to create comes from service to people (albeit in the book, starting with a particular group of people and nation), and the elements of an informed democracy on which the nation’s creation was premised upon.

How does the world work in such curious ways?


  • Brian Sales

    Great article Ian! This is why the “Green Veterans” concept was created! “Veterans are wired to serve!” Look forward to working collaborating with you in the near future.

    • Thanks so much Brian! Glad you found the article meaningful and relevant. Excited to learn more about the Green Veterans initiative and connecting to collaborate offline as well. Cheers!