Great Questions!

June 11th, 2015 | Leadership
Great Questions!

Excerpted with the permission of the author, Michael Marquardt, from Chapter Two of the Revised and Updated – “Leading with Questions”

Superb questions accomplish a number of wonderful results:

  • Cause the person to focus and to stretch.
  • Create deep reflection.
  • Challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that prevent people from acting in new and forceful ways.
  • Generate courage and strength.
  • Lead to breakthrough thinking.
  • Contain the keys that open the door to great solutions.
  • Enable people to better view the situation.
  • Open doors in the mind and get people to think more deeply.
  • Test assumptions and cause individuals to explore why they act in the way that they do as well as why they choose to take action.
  • Generate positive and powerful action.

Reg Revans, father of “Action Learning,” noted that great questions are fresh questions raised in “conditions of ignorance, risk, confusion, or when nobody knows what to do next.” Great questions are selfless; they are not asked to illustrate the cleverness of the questioner or to generate information or an interesting response for the questioner. They are generally supportive, insightful, and challenging. They are often unpresumptuous and offered in a sharing spirit.

Great questions are asked at the time when it generates the strongest amount of reflection and learning. Inquisitive leaders make good use of informal meetings, with no script, agenda, or set of action items to discuss.

They start out with empowering questions such as:

  • What’s on your mind?
  • Can you tell me about that?
  • Can you help me understand?
  • What should we be worried about?

Mark Harper, president of wholesale marketing for ConocoPhillips Petroleum, shared some of his favorite questions:

  • What is a viable alternative?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages you see in this suggestion?
  • Can you more fully describe your concerns?
  • What are your goals?
  • How would you describe the current reality?
  • What are a few options for improvement?
  • What will you commit to do by when?

Pam Iorio , former mayor of Tampa, Florida, told me that she identified two great questions that helped her succeed in her difficult and challenging position:

As I grew in the position as mayor, I saw my role evolve as one who should build leadership in others. I challenge those I work with in an organizational setting to ask this question: “What have I done to make those around me better, stronger leaders?” Posing this question places your team in a leadership position, and helps them to understand that their day is not about themselves— it is about growing others. When people see themselves in a supportive, nurturing role, they perform better and take on that mantle of leadership. As they work to build those around them, the entire team is stronger.

The second great question that she often asked was, “Have you forgiven everyone in your life?”

At first people wonder, what in the world does forgiveness have to do with leadership? Well, it really has a lot to do with your effectiveness as a leader. If you are carrying grudges and don’t work well with your entire team because of previous slights, altercations, or misunderstandings, you are diminishing your effectiveness as a leader. When you forgive, you are leveraging all of your relationships, working well with your entire team, and maximizing your effectiveness as a leader. I use the example of Nelson Mandela who forgave his captors after twenty-seven years of imprisonment. He said that “forgiveness liberates the soul.” Indeed it does, and I ask the question about forgiveness all the time, because it gets people thinking about how forgiveness in their own life will liberate them, lessen their burdens, and help them build stronger relations.

The better the question, the greater the insight gained and the better the solution attained. Tailor your question to the individual you are talking to.

Suzanne Milchling, head of the Homeland Defense Business Unit in the Department of Defense, explains how she chooses the questions she asks:

The most valuable questions for me are those that turn individuals to look inward at how they are perceived by others. When I ask some of the employees, “How are you going to do the project?” I get a straight answer. Those I call direct; I can direct them to do something, and they answer my questions in a direct and linear manner. For other, more abstract thinkers, I need them to cycle within. So I like asking questions like “Would it be useful to get Jim’s ideas first? Would he be able to grease the skids for you?” Getting such individuals to recycle their thought patterns in slow motion and out loud to me and others raises questions within them that they may not have thought of before. The abstract thinkers . . . need to be made aware of the details. Their thinking is in patterns, and I want them to understand the “detail” thinkers— the people they may have to convince— the people who think in details and linearly.

Gayle Lantz, president of WorkMatters, suggests the following as great questions for leaders to ask:

  • What matters most?
  • What is one problem that I can turn into an opportunity?
  • What do employees need to hear from me?
  • What is our customers’ greatest pain?
  • What new business relationships will I pursue?
  • How will I be more strategic?
  • How can I make swift yet smart decisions?
  • What leadership skill can— and should— I get better at?
  • How will I recognize success?
  • What is my biggest fear, and how will I face it?

Often the best, easiest, and most effective way to ask a good question is to simply build on a previous question or on the response to that question. The art and science of carefully listening and then generating an open-ended

Special Note from Bob:  In 2006 I was browsing in a (now closed) Borders Bookstore and came across the first edition of  “Leading With Questions” by Michael Marquardt.  I only had to peruse a few pages before declaring to myself, “This is a Keeper!”  This book forever changed how I lead! After I started my blog I had the privilege of interacting with Mike and he graciously agreed to do several guest posts and gave me his “cart-blanch” permission to excerpt from his book.  In this new edition Mike makes a significant mention of my blog and encourages his readers to subscribe!  WOW!  What a huge honor!  Mike –  Thank You Very Much!  I am blessed to be able to call you my friend!


You can order the new “Leading with Questions” by clicking “HERE”

Michael J. Marquardt


Michael J. Marquardt is the President, World Institute for Action Learning and a Professor at George Washington University. Mike is the author of 20 books and over 100 professional articles in the fields of leadership, learning, globalization and organizational change including Action Learning for Developing Leaders and Organizations and Leading with Questions.


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