Inquiry: Leadership for the Future

In the uncertainty we face every day, we often don’t need new answers from leaders. What we really need are questions that help us deal with local challenges. In this blog, Glenda talks about why using good questions and standing in Inquiry are the most urgent of leadership capacities in today’s turbulent and uncertain future.

Ten thousand fools proclaim themselves into obscurity, while one wise man forgets himself into immortality. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Leadership for the future is more about questions than answers. It draws on inquiry more than expertise. While this has always been true for extraordinary leaders, even the ordinary ones are beginning to feel this stretch today. We see this shift in performance and expectations across all functions, sectors, and industries. We see three reasons for this change.

First, structures and traditions of the past are in transition, so uncertainty is the pattern of the future. We see radical change on the horizon for climate, economy, politics, and health. The fundamental infrastructures of our human systems are moving toward or through tectonic shifts. In times of unpredictable and turbulent change, answers don’t last very long or reach very far. The perfect answer in one place and time can bring disaster in another. If a leader cannot ask a good question, she may lead herself and her team into very dangerous places.

Second, younger generations—leaders of the future—are not interested in the answers of elders. They have ideas and take on power to build a world on the possibilities they see. Yes, they will make mistakes. Yes, they might benefit from our guidance, but they probably won’t. The best we can do with our wisdom and experience is to frame transformative questions to challenge and inspire them to the best they can be and the most they can do.

Third, the future is about collaboration. We used to find it difficult to work across silos, but that challenge is insignificant compared to the kinds of collaboration demanded tomorrow. The social determinants of health demand collaboration across education, housing, transportation, healthcare, employment, nutrition, and environmental concerns. Climate change demands collaboration among the energy and automotive industries, government, environmental activists, and individual citizens. The pandemic has required public health, economic development, occupational health and safety, and health care services of all kinds to come together into shared strategy and tactics. Building and maintaining a democratic society demands the thinking and participation of all groups using democratic principles to work toward that shared aspiration. All of the real issues of the future cross over boundaries of all kinds. If leaders approach these boundary issues with their own answers, they will not be able to create the relationships and synergies we all need to thrive in the turbulent future.

So, leadership development for the future must rely on inquiry development. Leaders have to learn to ask questions. Even more than that, they need to find questions that are transformative in a particular place and time and with a particular community of actors. We consider deep, pattern-based inquiry to be the most important component of adaptive capacity. We consider adaptive capacity to be the most important characteristic for future leadership. And, we are engaged in an urgent inquiry to discover and test an effective theory and practice of inquiry-based leadership. Do you want to join us? Be in touch at


Join a global network of learning about HSD!