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Week 4 Collaborative leadership and exploring the unknown


Welcome to Week 4 of this course on collaborative leadership for voluntary organisations. This week takes a step into the unknown. We are going to talk to you about what we don’t know. As most of us don’t know what we don’t know (living in blissful ignorance), you could be forgiven for thinking that this will be a very short week of learning.

Of course, that is not the case. It is perhaps natural that we spend most of our time at work focusing on the things that we do know. Knowing is more comfortable and can be enjoyable because we all like to feel that we have mastered something, whether it’s our budget spreadsheets or writing a really snazzy policy document. In many ways, building slowly upon knowledge defines managerial and professional life.

Many of us also operate under the assumption that we know what we don’t know. For example, we might know that we could be better at communicating with volunteers via social media. We know that there are a range of options out there to solve this; so it is merely a matter of finding the time and learning a set of skills we know are available to us.

Operating in the unknown is a bit different to this: it means seeing the limits of our own identities, our own ways of making sense of the world and following what makes us feel awkward and uncomfortable. In the next section, you’ll hear how Ellen has tried to cope with this uneasiness.

Exploring the unknown is an important democratic practice and leadership practice. In the case of democratic ways of working, it is important because it can help us see beyond the limits shaped by our dominant identifications. In the case of leadership, leading ourselves and others to the unknown is one valuable way of exploring new and innovative possibilities for the future: it is a good way of keeping our organisations fresh and exciting places to work.

This week you will be taken through two ways in which you can help each other explore the unknown. These ways are:

  • the craft of noticing and building upon the gaps and fractures within our language
  • the practice of asking stretch questions.

By the end of this week you will be able to:

  • discuss with colleagues the potential for creating more forums for free expression of views
  • analyse the language used by colleagues (and by you) at work with a view to exploring unknown possibilities
  • practise asking stretch questions at work.
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1 Ellen reflects on the unknown

Please listen to the latest instalment of Ellen’s story.

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As you have just heard, Ellen is rightly proud of the work her organisation has managed to accomplish in the few years she has been in charge. The organisation has professionalised and the staff are now masters at gaining funding. Yet she still feels uneasy. You can hear that in the pauses and re-directions in her speech. Our view is that such uneasiness is actually healthy, something to confront and build upon rather than to wash away. You will now move on to think about how you can work with language to explore the unknown in leadership practice.

2 Language, identity and exploring the unknown

We are going to spend some time here considering the language used in leadership practice. The language we use also shapes how we experience the world. For example, organisations can become fixated with instrumental language – we do x in order to achieve y. Instrumental language can replace alternatives, such as the language of ethics, of intellectual stimulation or political language. After a while, organisations settle into a pattern of speaking that shapes the way they think and see the world.

There is always something lacking in the language and knowledge available to us, however. Language always fails to capture all of our ambitions for leadership: we often chastise ourselves in this regard. We wish we had produced a more perfect policy report or been more eloquent at a meeting. Yet the fact that we can find it hard to find the right words, the fact that we stumble mid-sentence can be a sign that we are exploring something important – that we are entering the unknown.

We advocate a practice of noticing and working with the cracks and flaws in our language as important in signalling to us when we are starting to explore the unknown. We can help each other in collaborative leadership by encouraging each other to explore further these issues that we find hard to communicate satisfactorily.

A practical example will serve to illustrate the point. Think about the last time you felt something strongly but lacked the words to express yourself satisfactorily (as Ellen found in the audio you heard earlier). Or the last time you spoke with someone about something that mattered to them and their talk was filled with pauses, repetition, uncertainty, contradiction. These moments are a sure sign that you are onto something important.

The reason you find it hard to express is precisely because your identity and system of thought are being stretched.

This is a provocative proposition as most of us are taught and trained to pursue only eloquence and coherence. We seek to only speak out loud when our thoughts are fully formed or to only share polished, final drafts of papers. Yet could it be that we close off all kinds of opportunities for growth by working in this way?

Described image
Figure 2

2.1 Grappling with the unknown through language

We are now going to invite you to participate in some practical work with language. The purpose is to explore how a speaker grapples with the unknown – to help you see possibilities in your own leadership work for exploring the unknown. The example comes from a paper by Smolović Jones et al (2016). The paper adopts the case of a women’s group in an unnamed Pacific country that, at the time of the data collection, was under military dictatorial rule. The women’s group was in fact an umbrella organisation whose purpose was to try to unite a diverse group of women across the various communities of the country. The group wanted to encourage more women to participate in public life but also to develop policy ideas and submit official responses to government consultation.

Activity 1 Listening, interpreting and the unknown

Timing: (15 minutes)

The following extract is an interview with an elder, indigenous member of the community (Filo, a pseudonym). When you read the extract, we would like you to take note of the following:

  • the identity communicated by Filo to the researcher asking the questions
  • the gaps, pauses, contradictions and so on in Filo’s language – what do these tell you about what she is trying to convey?
  • what kind of things would you ask Filo in order to help her progress her thinking into the unknown?
Filo (F):Speaking as someone indigenous of this country, the level of things that were going on in equality with every race [in the group] was ok. I understand and I accepted that. But...we were not recognised as give us some recognition.
Researcher (R): Like special recognition? take us away from the know, to at least recognise that these are the first people of this country. Because according to this country development and things like that...within the rural areas and understand us as a nation, or globally - they are left out.
R:How, in your view, have other women failed to recognise you?
F:My expectation is, for example, women from the rural areas to be...We cannot involve them, the transportation and getting them across is expensive. To go to them and see how they feel, how they view things. Mostly we are meeting on the level up here. A higher level.
R:You feel that women from rural areas should also be included?
F:Now and then to be represented…from the rural areas…from the grassroots level. There are some who are only in the rural areas, which are only indigenous. Mostly that’s how I feel…Only the heads are coming.
R:I see, but what was the reason for not voicing it with other women?
F:I was thinking it was, like, selfish.
R:How was it selfish?
F:...Just because I don’t want to be named like...They probably think otherwise, not the way I think. Sometimes when you say things, get involved emotionally…it touches.

The first thing to note here is that Filo clearly identifies as a member of the indigenous community. This is significant for two reasons. The first is that the context of the interview is a country that experiences significant tensions between indigenous people, more recent arrivals (many of whom have been in the country for a century or more) and a colonial past where both of these sections of the population were exploited. One valuable contribution of the women’s group was to bring people together from across these communities to try to develop a collective voice on behalf of all women.

Filo is indicating that shaping a collective identity of women is in itself problematic for her. She feels that her indigenous perspective has been undervalued. Specifically, she is trying to communicate that the work of the women’s group has not done enough to include poorer people from the country’s more rural communities.

Crucially, she cannot quite express what it is the group should be doing differently. That is not the point. She is moving towards unknown territory for the group, signalling potential for further conversations. It is the role of her colleagues in collaborative leadership to help her explore this issue in more depth and support her in getting there.

Filo both stumbles over her words (unusually for her) and also brings her emotions to the fore (also unusual for her). Filo is stretching at the boundaries of the identity of the women’s group and we can see this from the numerous pauses and changes of direction in her speech (marked by ellipsis in the text). Her emotional attachment to this issue is apparent in the simple statement, ‘it touches’. There are also flashes of shame as she expresses trepidation at seeming selfish if she tries to discuss the issue with her group colleagues.

In the next section, you will consider some of the implications of this analysis.

2.2 Communicating the unknown

In the previous section, you read an extract from an interview with Filo, an elder, indigenous member of her community. We will now reflect on how we can support other people in our organisations in exploring unknown territory.

Activity 2 Helping others explore the unknown

Timing: (10 minutes)

What kind of things could you do if you were confronted with a similar situation to this in your organisation: of someone trying to communicate something of importance to them but struggling to find the words?

Spend 10 minutes reflecting on how you might approach the situation.


Too often in organisations people are made to feel embarrassed if they want to speak up but stumble over their words. That is a shame because these moments are important – a sign that someone is circling something that matters to them but that they can’t quite put their finger on. It is precisely at this point that people need the support of their colleagues. In the next section we will unpack some ideas as to how this support can be offered.

2.3 Supporting colleagues in exploring the unknown

Supporting your colleagues should come with some health warnings. We are not about to advocate the picking over of people’s language in silly, microscopic ways – that would be a recipe for paralysis. Likewise, we recognise that some people are more fluent than others verbally. Some people may, for example, much prefer listening, thinking and then composing their thoughts, in order to re-enter conversations later, either verbally or in writing. We have to be sensitive to the fact that sometimes people may simply feel unprepared or ambushed.

Now to explore the practical implications of our analysis. Interrupting someone in full flow, even when they are stumbling, is usually a bad idea. Some people do so for the best of reasons – empathy usually. We have all floundered when speaking and it is often welcome for someone to come to our rescue when we do so. Others interrupt simply because they like to be heard. The key here is to allow people the space to express themselves and to feel secure in doing so.

Next, we might consider training our ears to pay attention to the way people express themselves, as well as to what they are saying. In the case of Filo, we would train ourselves to pick out the points at which she stumbled and then see where she took her speech next. Did she try to change the subject or did she allow her thoughts to play out? If the former, then we could support her in revisiting those moments of uncertainty, conveying the fact that we are happy to explore uncertain and unknown terrain together. Remember that it is fine to not know the answer. Exploring the unknown together is the whole point.

We might also reflect back to Filo where we noticed her becoming particularly emotional. Although it is a terribly British thing to overlook such moments and pretend that they did not happen, it may be more valuable to explore why people feel strongly about something.

Of course, we might also intervene along the way in subtle ways, particularly if we sense that the speaker’s speech is in danger of collapsing entirely. Bear in mind, however, that silence is a subjective experience. What can seem like an age of silence in conversation for some can feel like merely a few reflective moments for others. Intervening acts might be as simple as some nodding of the head or a small affirmative noise expressing approval. You could repeat back what you have just heard the speaker say, inviting correction or an expansion of the point. Finally, you could ask a probing question in order to further open up the thinking of the speaker.

It is to this practice of asking questions that we now turn.

3 Stretch questions and exploring the unknown

We end the substantive content for the week by thinking about the practice of asking questions in organisations as a way of supporting each other to explore the unknown. Asking questions may seem like an obvious, even basic, skill and yet it is surprising how infrequently enquiry is adopted within organisational settings. Meetings, for example, are usually dominated by people seeking to make a declaratory point (this means that you’re declaring something to be the case, rather than questioning it: the sky is blue; the cat is sitting on the mat, etc.).

Hence meetings can become disjointed affairs, a series of sometimes connected, sometimes disconnected declaratory statements by people. Building on a point, exploring its dimensions, allowing space for something to be explored are things that happen too rarely.

Asking good questions is an essential leadership practice. Such a statement may seem counter-cultural when so much of leadership theorising and practice is wedded to the idea that leaders should be the people who already know – our heroic saviours, if you like. This is an unhealthy way of thinking that restricts the range of ideas and solutions available in the wider organisation. If an important part of leadership is about exploring the unknown (what we don’t know we don’t know), then we will never be able to enter this territory without first asking questions of what we already know and think we don’t know.

Of course, there are helpful questions and less helpful questions. Predominantly, we can think along the lines of open and closed questions. Closed questions can be answered with a ‘yes’, ‘no’ or a ‘maybe’. Their effect, as is hinted at in their title, is to close down a conversation and allow it to cohere around a settled point. For example:

Wouldn’t you agree that given we have only three weeks until we submit this funding bid we really shouldn’t be discussing volunteering strategy at this meeting?

Closed questions can often be declaratory points disguised as questions. These are strategies to close down discussion and debate. Closed questions can sometimes also be provocative, however, and used as a way of getting others to pay attention, although these are minority cases. One response to a closed question might be to fire an open question straight back: ‘Why are you asking that? Have you thought about an alternative approach?’

Open questions are any kind of questions that you cannot answer with ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘maybe’. These questions usually begin with a ‘what’, ‘why’ or ‘how’. For example:

  • ‘What do you think about our volunteering strategy?’
  • ‘How do we convince more young people to sign up as volunteers?’
  • ‘Why are you so committed to that particular solution to our volunteering problems?’

Another way of thinking about open questions is that such questions should make you stretch for an answer. Fiona Kennedy, a researcher and leadership development facilitator at the New Zealand Leadership Institute, adopts the metaphor of a rugby match in order to convey this point. A good pass of the ball in rugby is a pass that a player has to run into. As a player catches the ball, new space opens up and momentum develops within the team’s movement. Good stretch questions perform the same function, Kennedy argues.

In what follows we make the case that asking stretch questions is an important leadership practice as it re-shapes conversations in important ways, opens them up to possibility, to explorations into previously unknown territory.

A brief warning, however. We advocate stretch questions here as part of a package of leadership practice. Sometimes the practice of asking questions can get out of hand and groups can get stuck in seemingly endless enquiry – circling but avoiding decisions. Of course, we understand that organisations have to make decisions, sometimes quickly and decisively. That said, overall, not enough questions are asked in organisational practice, so we think the risk of such a practice going overboard is less pronounced than the counter-risk of enquiry being shut down.

4 Stretch questions and wicked problems

Week 1 discussed wicked problems – those that defy known, technical solutions. We can now progress our thinking around wicked problems a step further. When a problem is approached as a ‘tame’ problem (i.e. one that can be tackled with a managerial or technical approach), the tendency is to ask less questions or for the questions posed to be narrower in scope, focusing on refining a known approach.

Grint (2005) provides the decision by the United States government and its allies to invade Iraq in 2003 as a case in point. Grint outlines how George W. Bush and his advisors approached the problem of Iraq first as a crisis problem and then as a tame problem. Talking about something in crisis terms enables a response that tends to focus power in the hands of a commander who claims to know best: we are made to feel as though we are facing an immediate danger and hence are more prepared to sacrifice our discretion and even sometimes democratic rights in order for decisive action to be taken. The second move of Bush, according to Grint, was then to approach the war and its aftermath in managerial terms: fighting a traditional war with a definable beginning and end against a known and identifiable enemy.

Missing in Bush’s approach, according to Grint, was the presence of stretch questions, open questions that could have redefined the very problem strategists and politicians believed they were trying to solve. Such questions would seek to make people think about the problem in more complex, less immediately solvable but, in the longer term, more helpful ways.

The chairs of voluntary organisations often see their jobs as asking these kinds of questions of their organisations: of exploring and even gently provoking staff into exploring what they do not know about a problem.

There are salient lessons in here for leadership. Namely, that the leadership response of opening an issue up with a stretch question may be the course that is the hardest for people in positions of authority. But, then again, since when was leadership about taking the easy path?

Ideally, asking stretch questions is not the sole preserve of people in official leadership roles. On the contrary, we want to be in a situation where anyone within an organisation feels able to ask such questions and, furthermore, to be rewarded for doing so. More than any other practice, being able to collectively pursue a questioning approach is the hallmark of healthy, participative and collaborative leadership.

Activity 3 Stretch questions in your organisation

Timing: (15 minutes)

Visit your learning journal  and spend 15 minutes reflecting on whether your organisation is currently equipped to allow people to ask stretch questions. If yes, then can you think of any examples or point to anything in particular in the organisation that seems to make this practice possible. If no, can you think of anything that might enable this practice to take root? Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 4 Activity 3.


Of course, we are not naïve idealists. We recognise that asking tough questions can be hard. This is especially the case when the person asking the question has little or no official positional power. Such people can be labelled troublemakers (and sometimes they are!). It is therefore of absolute importance that organisations think about how they can make such behaviour not only acceptable but also desirable. You might work in an organisation, however, where this kind of stretch questioning practice is simply off limits, for one reason or another. If this is the case but you would still like to practice in a safe environment, you could always adopt the strategy of stretch questions informally with friends or family – think of it as training to better equip you for work in the next organisation you join.

4.1 Stretch questions in practice

We will now spend some time thinking about and practising asking stretch questions. Asking questions is a real craft and it will take some time to become really good at it, but we are all more than capable of excelling in this practice.

Activity 4 Problems facing your organisation

Timing: (30 minutes)

Visit our discussion forum. Spend 30 minutes thinking about a problem facing your organisation that needs some serious thinking. Start a post describing the problem (no more than 100 words). Make sure you post your comments within the correct thread for this activity. Now find the post of a fellow learner and pose an open question to that person, something that might help the learner think about their problem in a different light. To get you underway, we have posted something about a current issue facing the OU at the present time – so please feel free to practise on us before having a go with your own organisations.


Asking good questions takes time and practice, so don’t be surprised if you have to have a couple of attempts before settling into a rhythm. We will keep an eye on your contributions and help push you in the right direction where we can. Onwards into the unknown!

Practice for the week: stretch questions

Hopefully you have all tried asking some questions of your fellow learners and also received some interesting contributions to your own organisational issues. As with anything (art, sports, music), leadership takes practice. Keep at it. You might want to talk to colleagues at work about these ideas, and share with them that you think it would be worth experimenting with asking more questions in meetings, or simply in general. If you do this, make a note of your experiences in your learning journal – you will appreciate recording these thoughts, as they will provide you with a valuable record of your progress that you can revisit in the future.

Week 4 quiz

Check what you’ve learned this week by taking the end-of-week quiz.

Week 4 quiz

Open the quiz in a new window or tab then come back here when you’ve finished.

Summary of Week 4

This week you were asked to think about the unknown – the things that we don’t know that we don’t know. Conceptually, this is one of the hardest things to think of in leadership. This approach to the unknown was divided into two sections. First, we adopted a practical way of analysing the language used in organisations, as a fruitful means of approaching unknown problems and possibilities for our leadership work. Second, we outlined an approach of asking wicked questions, which should open up new spaces of thinking.

Now go to Week 5.

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Grint, K. (2005) ‘Problems, problems, problems: the social construction of “leadership”’, Human Relations, vol. 58, no. 11, pp. 1467–94.
Harrison Y., Murray, V. and Cornforth, C. (2012) ‘Perceptions of board chair leadership effectiveness in non-profit and voluntary sector organisations’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary Nonprofit Organizations vol. 24, no. 3, pp. 688–712.
Smolović Jones, S., Smolović Jones, O., Winchester, N. and Grint, K. (2016) ‘Putting the discourse to work: on outlining a praxis of democratic leadership development’, Management Learning, vol. 47, no. 4, pp. 424–42.


This free course was written by Owain Smolović Jones and Carol Jacklin-Jarvis.

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