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Leadership is About Asking the Right Questions

When I was dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell, I was often asked the question “what is the most important trait of a leader?” I am sure that you have also most likely been asked this question or have seen others answer this question. It is tempting to answer this question by giving views like, “a leader needs to be visionary and should inspire others” or “ a leader has to be humble and serve the community” or “a leader needs to be disciplined and focused on execution”. None of these views are wrong and each one is a legitimate answer to the question posed earlier.

After having spent 30 years as an academic in leading global business schools, having served in senior administrative positions in schools in Europe and the USA for over 20 years and having interacted with hundreds of business leaders, I have formed my own opinion also. I believe today that the most important trait of a leader is not to have the right answers but to be able to ask the right questions. I believe that no one has all the right answers. If one is fortunate, one has perhaps some of the answers correct. But if one is able to ask the right questions, and if one is humble enough to seek answers to them, the chances are higher that the leader will be able to successfully engage with his/her community, motivate people and guide the organization towards sustained success.

A leader has multiple responsibilities in a business school (or for that matter, within any organization). One of these important roles is to establish the direction of the school. An important question in this regard is “what is the purpose of our school?” Answering this question is never easy as a business school is a connected ecosystem of multiple stakeholders. Some might view the purpose of a school to be to provide a good education to students. Others may view it as to provide jobs and careers to students and alumni. Yet others may see the important goal of a business school to have an impact on society at large. There are obviously other possible answers to this simple but important question. The leader of the business school may have to seek the input of different stakeholder groups to determine the “right” answer to the question for her school. The answer(s) that the leader chooses sets the mission and vision of the school and influences other subsequent actions within the school’s strategy.

We are living through a unique phase of recent human history. The Covid pandemic has forced a rethink of education and many aspects of our professional and personal lives. Technology adoption has accelerated significantly and is changing education profoundly.

“New models in education are emerging and the precise future nature and form of delivery of education is not clear. The leader of a business school may not know what the future of education looks like, but it is essential that the leader is able to ask the right questions.”

No two business schools are alike and so the important questions may vary from school to school.

  • How will our programs move online and to what degree?
  • Which student groups should we aim to reach via technology?
  • Should we embrace teaching delivered remotely by visiting faculty outside our core faculty groups?
  • How can technology be used to support lifelong learning?
  • Can we use technology to do online assessments for students who are not enrolled in our school?
  • How can we use technology to make our programs more inclusive?
  • How should the content of what we teach given what we now know about a people-centric view of the economy?

The list of questions can be long and it is the responsibility of the leader to not only pose the right questions, but to also identify the right subset of important questions to focus on.

A leader cannot have the right answers to all important questions. A good leader will recognize the limitations of his/her knowledge and will actively seek inputs from others to help define the questions better and assess what the right answers could or should be. At times, there may be no “right” answer to a question or situations where considerable uncertainty exists about the answer(s) to choose. There are tools such as scenario analysis which can be useful in such situations, but the most important element is the willingness of a leader to acknowledge that she/he does not have the answer(s) and to consult with key stakeholder groups to arrive at a consensus on the best possible answer(s) to the question(s) on hand.

Many important questions need to asked today by business school leaders as we start the slow process of coming out of the Covid pandemic and reshaping business school education for a sustainable and inclusive future. Determining which questions to ask is the first and important challenge for a business school leader. If you get this right, you have already overcome the most important challenge of leadership and made significant progress towards your goals.

Soumitra Dutta
Soumitra Dutta, dean of Johnson (JGSM).

Soumitra Dutta is a Professor of Management at Cornell University and the Chair of the Board of Directors for GBSN. Previously he was the Founding Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell and Chair of AACSB Intl. He is also the President and Co-Founder of the Portulans Institute.

Email: sd599@cornell.edu; Twitter: @soumitradutta; LinkedIn: soumitra-dutta