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How Leaders Lead Post-Pandemic: Explore Mysteries More than Solve Puzzles

Mayvin associate Dr Richard Hale has collaborated with Professor Dave Ulrich on the publication of the article How Leaders Lead Post-Pandemic
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Mayvin associate Dr Richard Hale has collaborated with Professor Dave Ulrich on the publication of the article shown here proposing a fresh approach for leaders as Mystery Explorers more than Puzzle-Solvers. Richard comments on how the work of Mayvin has supported his thinking and practice:

“ In our work with Mayvin clients from the Civil Service and corporates, we have integrated an action learning and questions driven approach to work based learning with the development of OD capability and most importantly an OD mindset.

Dave Ulrich is ranked as the #1 management guru by Business Week and one of the world‘s top 10 creative people as profiled by Fast Company.  He was attracted to the publications authored by myself with James Traeger, Carolyn Norgate and Martin Saville where we discussed our work in ‘Nuturing the H in HR’ and ‘Developing the D in OD’.  This led to me sharing my thinking and us developing our thesis regarding the future focus for leaders which we propose should be to become Mystery Explorers more than Puzzle Solvers. In the article you will also see the 4x5Q framework for structuring questions around the mysteries of venturing into the future without knowing the answers. This underpins the approach we take on our accredited programme as participants formulate their Organisation Design and Development Questions.”

How Leaders Lead Post-Pandemic: Explore Mysteries More than Solve Puzzles

  • Published on March 23, 2021

Dave Ulrich Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

By Richard Hale • Founder, • [email protected] and Dave Ulrich • [email protected] • Co-Founder, The RBL Group

The post-pandemic era has arrived or will soon come. Many offer insights on the new normal for the world of work: hybrid work settings, digitally-enabled work processes, and agile organizational actions. We are somewhat hesitant to predict a new normal given the incredible uncertainty of the 2020–2021 crises where few would have predicted the pandemic, civic injustice, economic granularity, political discord, emotional disorders, or other challenges.

We also recognize that this people/organization mélange of crises provides an opportunity for significant transformation of the human capital agenda for talent, leadership, organization, and HR.

Since we are in the business of observing, studying, and advising leaders, we want to help leaders better lead while they may not clearly know the context (e.g., hybrid, digital, agile, etc.) in which they do so. With others, we have crafted lists of leadership skills that may help leaders lead, but how do leaders apply these skills when a new normal is not predictable? The ability to lead from a position of not knowing will be the leadership differentiator for the future.

Often people turn to their leaders to find answers to organization questions: What is our organization’s purpose (vision, mission, strategy, goals)? How do we deliver on this purpose (ensure accountability, teamwork, change processes)? How do we help our people do their best (build competence, commitment, and experience)? How do we create the right culture to help our organization succeed in the marketplace?

Post pandemic logistical puzzles grab leaders’ attention, but perhaps in the unknowable future, leaders will be less often tasked with answering these urgent questions and more challenged with asking the right questions. As thoughtful colleagues point out, asking thoughtful questions often:

  • Shape agendas more than providing smart answers does.
  • Increase rather than limit possibilities.
  • Engage others in discovering options.
  • Allow for continuous learning and adaptation.

Leadership curiosity or the ability to explore options and ask good questions may be more important than total clarity in an unknowable normal. Exploring options or mysteries may be the path to wisdom and insight rather than intellectual cleverness, problem-solving, or question answering.

Adapting Gregory Treverton’s thoughtful distinction between puzzles and mysteries (and Malcolm Gladwell’s use of this typology), we suggest that leadership puzzle-questions are out to find clarity or a right answer; however, leadership questions born out of curiosity raise alternatives. Crossword puzzles have a solution that requires problem-solving ability, and for those who are the best puzzle solvers, they learn the methods, short-cuts, and techniques. Curiosity leads to inquiry into mysteries that cannot always be solved but can be explored in order to make progress.

Post-pandemic leadership may be more about anthropology and curiosity rather than analytics and solutions. Let us summarize in figure 1 how leaders can be more oriented to curiosity rather than clarity.

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Asking the Right Leadership Questions

To help leaders become mystery explorers through increasing curiosity, we suggest a typology for asking the right questions (see figure 2). This can be used collaboratively with teams working on strategic or organizational transformation challenges.

  • Scoping questions emphasize the context of the leadership challenge (e.g., defining a purpose, creating a plan for execution, enabling employees, building the right culture).
  • Knowledge mapping identifies those with information to respond to leadership challenges.
  • Action refers to possible steps forward.
  • The impact and learning area ensure a cycle of continuous improvement.

For each of these four categories, we have proposed five questions that leaders might ask to demonstrate curiosity and to emphasize exploring mysteries more than solving puzzles (see figure 2).

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Case Study of Leadership through Questions

A leading care sector organization faced significant transformational challenges. Its reputation was based on human values and care for the elderly in its homes and communities. However, the introduction of new technologies had lagged behind innovations in the market. Multi-site locations led by local leaders had developed multiple different practices and systems. The CEO wanted to drive streamlined, sustainable transformation that would extend beyond simply digitizing the business. Executives recognized an opportunity to use the 4x5Q typology to drive this change and help leaders simultaneously develop their leadership capability.

Leaders were grouped into teams and briefed by an executive on the three-year business plan. They then scoped a leadership question to research and address over a six-month period. Questions ranged from the more strategic (“How can I understand the changing market for later life care and use this intelligence to influence future strategies?”) to the more operational (“How can I engage my team to embrace the introduction of new technologies to support our service delivery?”)

Team members supported each other as they developed their research inquiry, which was conducted both within the business and externally. This meant leaders had to commit time and effort to such future-focused leadership challenges despite the reactive challenges of supporting residents and staff through and beyond the most demanding of times due to the pandemic. The process of asking questions increased variety and helped this company make progress.


No one doubts that leaders matter in emerging from the 2020–2021 crises. To become effective, leaders in this unknowable normal need to move beyond solving puzzles to exploring mysteries by being curious. The question framework we offer may help leaders lead into the future.


Richard Hale is the founder of leadership development firm KNOWCANWILLDO.

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and Partner, The RBL Group.

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