Ask, Don’t Tell – Part One

Excerpted with permission from Mark Miller‘s book “Smart Leadership – Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact”

Note from Bob:  Mark’s Chapter, “Ask, Don’t Tell” is pure GOLD – filled with incredible wisdom on Leading With Questions!   We are dividing this chapter into a 3-Part Post.  Part One: “Why Questions Matter” is below.  Click HERE for Part Two: “Putting Your Questions to Work”.  Click HERE for Part Three “Ask Better Questions”.

“The important thing is to not stop questioning.” Albert Einstein


Jim Collins is a global thought leader in the field of leadership. Built to Last and Good to Great are two of his books that have had profound impacts on millions of leaders. To know Jim personally and to have him speak at our annual event on two occasions has been a privilege. He has challenged and inspired me and all our leaders.

One of my favorite moments came when Jim began to talk about questions. He asked all of us to consider our question-to-statement ratio. He encouraged us to not only be aware of our current ratio—how often we ask a question versus making a statement—but he also suggested we double the number of questions. While I and the thousands assembled were still pondering the implications of a shift of that magnitude, he added, “And then double it again.”

In a side conversation, Jim began to tell me about his sleep patterns. I was interested but wasn’t quite sure why he was sharing this information. He then revealed that he was also tracking his questions, and apparently grading them based on their value. Jim had committed to getting more sleep, because when he did, he said he asked more good questions. Jim is no doubt a fan of questions.

How important are questions to you? How central are they to the way you lead? For me, the more questions I ask, the better I lead.

Questions to a leader are like a pickaxe to a frontier miner. They can serve as your primary tool to unearth the nuggets of truth and insight you seek. Following are some of the reasons you should make questions an essential tool as you attempt to Fuel Curiosity and scale your impact.

Questions Make You Smarter

Whether we want to admit it or not, we don’t know everything. When you ask a question, you have the opportunity to get smarter faster. If you ask someone about a project, an idea, a conference, a book, or a relationship, the answer they provide shortens the amount of time required for you to acquire the same information through personal experience. A software analogy may be helpful. When you ask a question and actually listen to the response, you are essentially adding a new line of code to your own programming.

Questions Make Others Smarter

When we ask a question, the recipient of our query will have to think. Even if their answer is, “I don’t know,” this revelation itself is knowledge. What if your follow-up question helps them understand a way forward or a next step? “How could you find the answer?” Or, “Who could help you find the answer?” Or, “Why do you think it might be important for you to know the answer?” These questions and countless others will help the people around you grow.

Questions Reveal Additional Information

Regardless of how much knowledge, information, and experience you have with a topic or subject, a few well-placed and thoughtful questions will reveal more information. I mentioned in an earlier chapter about the leadership development group I’ve been in for more than twenty years. We use a question-based study method. As a result, I continue to discover there is so much I do not know about this mysterious thing we call leadership. The answers have not been nearly as helpful as the questions for opening new paths of discovery.

Questions Can Transport You to a Place You’ve Never Been

There are many questions that can take you to another time and place (e.g., How do you think people will solve this problem in a hundred years? How do you think people would have solved this a hundred years ago?). Others are even more bizarre and thought-provoking. This is fantastic. Questions of this nature can jolt your imagination and shake you free of the shackles of today. Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved on the same level of thinking at which they were created.” These transport questions can really set your mind free. Even more pedestrian versions surrounding budgets, timing, and people in modern times can create an entirely new frame of mind and put you in a scenario you have probably never considered. Find more examples of these on the following pages.

Questions Spawn More Questions

A good question responded to thoughtfully almost always opens the door to another question. The ethnographic interviewing course I referenced earlier drilled this into my head. While listening to a response, we are actually listening at several levels: content, emotional charge, tone, word choice, and more. One of the most helpful things we should be listening for is an open door to ask another question. The insight you are seeking is often not behind the first, second, or third door but many layers deep into the conversation. The key to each door is another question.

Questions Demonstrate Your Openness and Humility

The prideful leader doesn’t ask a lot of questions. When your team sees you willing to ask authentic questions, your stock will increase. Asking questions is not a sign of weakness—it is a sign of wisdom. People always watch the leader; when they see your willingness to be vulnerable and ask honest, thoughtful questions, they will do the same. This inquisitiveness will strengthen your leadership, your team, and your organization.

Questions Can Spark Creativity

The mind is a self-optimizing memory system with its hardwired tendency to follow known patterns and routines. Questions are one of the easiest ways to redirect your thinking. The questions don’t even need to be particularly clever or thought-provoking. Simple questions such as “What else could we do?” Or, “What if . . . ?” can be monumental. Once you’ve been able to escape the ruts within your own thinking, amazing things can happen. Often, alternatives will flood your imagination—that is the promise and the product of creative thinking.

Questions Can Clarify a Problem

In the face of an issue or difficulty, have you ever been unclear as to the essence of the problem? Questions can help you pinpoint the root cause. They can help you move past the surface indicators and ensure you are addressing the underlying cause. If your problem is even slightly misdiagnosed, your solutions will miss the mark, and you will not see the outcomes you desire. You get no credit for doing the wrong things well.

Questions Can Help Solve Your Most Challenging Problems

Once you have your problem defined, the fun begins. Now you and your team have the opportunity to solve it. There are many problem-solving models and tools in the world. All the ones I’ve used will work if you use them well. Questions transcend and permeate most problem-solving approaches. The most blatant use of questions in problem solving is the five-why approach included in the list of new quality management tools. When faced with a nonconformance (problem), ask, “Why?” Upon receiving the answer, ask why a second time, and then a third time—you can see where this is going. The premise is simple—once you get five levels deep, you are usually approaching the truth about the root cause of the problem.

Questions Are a Hedge against Irrelevance

We live in a big world. Although some say it is getting smaller every day, I think it is getting bigger—more knowledge, more opportunity, more reach, more complexity, more choices, and so on. Questions can help us grow with the world, stay connected, and maintain relevance. When we ask thoughtful questions, it grows our heads, hearts, and our spirits of curiosity.

Note from Bob:  Spending time with Mark is always a treat!  Reading Mark’s new book “Smart Leadership – Four Simple Choices to Scale Your Impact!” will be a way for you to spend a couple of hours learning from him.  You will want to order your “Smart Leadership” book now by clicking HERE

I am predicting that even before you finish reading “Smart Leadership” you will be wanting to purchase additional books to share with your staff, colleagues and many others in the shadow of your influence!

Mark Miller


Mark Miller is a business leader, best-selling author, and a communicator. He is currently serving as the Vice President of High Performance Leadership for Chick-fil-A, Inc. Beyond chicken, Mark’s global influence continues to grow. Today, there are over a million copies of his books in print, in twenty-five languages. Smart Leadership is his tenth title.



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