To lead means to ask good questions

I had several discussions this week about dealing with conflict situations or getting someone on board with a plan. It’s funny how similar leadership issues seem to cluster at certain times. Those discussions all ended up in exploring the importance and power of asking questions. So let’s dive a little into why asking questions is so critical and so powerful for us as leaders – and we all are leaders! We lead projects, we lead (virtual) teams, we lead families, we lead partnerships, and many more…

As a leader, asking good questions that guide deeper understanding is a critical skill. Of course, it needs to be paired with the patience and desire to ‘listen to understand’ (instead of listening to identify an opening where we can jump in with our own monologue). You don’t ask questions to show off – you ask questions to understand.

As a matter of fact, what usually marks the transition from a manager to a leader is the change in how they interact with their direct reports, peers, and bosses:

A manager gives direction; a leader asks questions and guides understanding.
A manager (thinks he) has all the answers; a leader knows what questions need to be asked.
A manager is the superstar; a leader develops everyone around her into superstars.

There are many benefits in asking guiding and insight-seeking questions instead of rambling about your opinions. Here are the three most important ones:

I. You broaden your understanding (Decision making)

Let’s start with the hard truth: You don’t know everything!

You may be as smart as they come – you still just can’t know everything. You won’t know all the details, you will miss the specific context, and you don’t have the specific perspective that others bring in based on their personal experience and background.

As a leader, your job is to make good decisions. So ask questions and LISTEN! Gather as much diverse data as you possibly can. Listen to what you hear, then think about the next good question to ask. Don’t try to shine as a superbrain by asking tough questions – listen, digest, and then ask for what additional information and perspective is needed.

Your goal is to gather diverse data that challenge your opinions and biases. Ask the right questions to gather that data and listen to what you are given back in return. A good answer is a gift that you should cherish!

At some point, it will be you who needs to make the call – try to gather as much unbiased information as you can before you take that step. However, once you do, it’s your call – allow for new information as you go along, but  don’t allow second-guessing of your decision based on the existing information.

II. You encourage thinking (Coaching)

By asking questions, you guide critical thinking. You point out areas that might need further investigation or reflection, or you draw out important additional information and insights that weren’t shared yet.

By doing so, you walk your partner through your thought models. You help them think about their own opinions from a different angle and more holistically. You help improve their thinking and decision making, leading to better plans and strategies.

Best of all, if you only communicate your grand plan, you will not teach your partner anything. They get a black-box solution and won’t understand what led to that solution. If you lead them to the rigth solution with your questions, you share your thought process and let them experience and practice it on a concrete example. Instead of giving an answer, you have taught a thought model. You showed how to fish, instead of just handing over the fish.

III. You are in control of the flow (Negotiating)

While the first two scenarios and reasons for being the one who asks the questions are more focused on finding a solution, this last one is more about being effective when you have a plan and just need to get it done against resistance.

Our typical reaction when we run into resistance is to defend our plan and thinking. The more resistance we encounter, the wordier we get. We get into the defense and dig a deeper and deeper hole for ourselves. As we are trying to explain our position, we are always a step behind – it’s easy for the other person to just question our opinion and keep us on our toes, explaining and defending until we doubt ourselves.

Asking good questions instead allows us to get out of the defensive position and take control of the flow of the discussion.

Instead of saying “…but I really believe that we should do X, as I said, we have looked at all the data…”, start asking, “Well, I would like to understand better why you think this won’t work. Can you walk me through the challenges you see and how you think we could overcome those challenges.”

Asking good questions and genuinely listening to what you hear are some of the most powerful tools to make you more effective and a better leader and collaborator. Practice and sharpen those tools whenever you can!

And here’s a quote from Jack Welch in closing:

When you are an individual contributor, you try to have all the answers. When you are a leader, your job is to have all the questions.” – Jack Welch

PS to the quote above: I actually don’t think YOU have to have all the questions. Your job is to make sure all the right questions get asked – no matter whether they come from you or from your teammates. You foster those questions. You don’t have to provide all of them.

More great quotes on the importance of leading with questions:

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Thriving in High-Pressure Environments
Lessons from Amazon, a global pandemic, and other crazy times
By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk
ISBN 9798718017663

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