Leading With Questions Instead of Answers

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Guest Post by Timothy R. Clark

There’s a principle in leadership that says the further you advance in responsibility, the more you must rely on questions rather than answers. The exception to the rule might be working at McDonald’s — if you’ve done every job on the floor by the time you’re promoted to management. You can flip the burgers, fry the fries, ring the register, mop the floor and reconcile the inventory of napkins and ketchup. Most organizations are far too complex for anyone to master the enterprise. You can’t possibly move through all the chairs. And even if you did, the pace of change would overtake you.

Why, then, do so many leaders frantically try to maintain their status as a human repository of answers? Why do so many think the essence of leadership is about directing and discharging people? I suggest these leaders ask themselves what year it is.

I was talking to the CEO of a hospital not long ago. He said to me, “I have 10 direct reports on my team. Do you know how many of their jobs I can do?”

“How many?” I asked.

“None,” he stated emphatically. “I can’t do a single one. And if you go down a level to their direct reports, it’s the same story.”

Can this hospital CEO possibly lead with answers? Absurd. His job is to know the right questions to ask. Questioning skills will make or break him. If you’ve been deeply socialized to understand that your job as a leader is primarily about telling people what to do, you may have some unlearning to do. Failing to do so could become a career derailer, and even a fatal flaw if you don’t replace the old behavior.

The Test of Obviousness

In working with groups of leaders, I often facilitate a three-level questioning exercise in which I ask them to take a current challenge in the organization and come up with questions about it. I divide the leaders into groups of five and ask them to identify 10 questions about the issue. They often say they have already studied the issue from every possible angle. I smile and ask them to humor me. That’s level one — the test of obviousness. It’s playing journalist and asking the who, what, where, when and how. The first 10 questions are not so hard. Then I quote Winston Churchill, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.” I explain that in level one we normally pass the test of obviousness by observing and considering basic cause and effect relationships.

The Test of Obscurity

In round two, I ask the leaders to come up with 10 more questions about the issue at hand. It takes more mental muscle, but it’s only when we push harder that we start to uncover new options and possibilities. We grow our powers of observation and analysis. That’s level two — the test of obscurity — digging deeper to see what’s not obvious. The magic begins when we start to discard convention, throw off shackled thinking and abandon orthodoxy.

The Test of Originality

Finally, we do a third round with 10 more questions to push the limits. In the third round, leaders feel the pain. They bump up against the limits of their intellectual agility. But it’s here that we start to see them come up with the most gorgeous questions.

As we move from round to round, leaders normally discover four important principles:

  1. Questions lead to questions. In other words, new questions are found inside old questions.
  2. Questions naturally progress from general to specific. Our mental processes tend to follow an inverted pyramid in which we ask general and basic questions first and then graduate to narrow and penetrating ones later.
  3. Questions tend to shift from a personal perspective to the perspective of others. We tend to be self-centered and ethnocentric about the questions we ask at first. Gradually, we get outside of ourselves and ask questions from different vantage points.
  4. The best questions come last and are hard won. It’s where the treasure of original thinking, creativity and innovation are found.

Timothy R. Clark is CEO of TRClark a consulting company that focuses on leadership development and large-scale change. He has written several books, including Epic Change: How to Lead Change in the Global Age (Jossey-Bass). He works with leaders and organizations around the world. Dr. Clark earned a Ph.D. from Oxford University.”

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