“Leading with Questions”

Special Note:  In 2006 I was browsing in a (now closed) Borders Bookstore and came across Leading With Questions by Michael Marqurdt.  I only had to peruse a few pages before declaring to myself, “This is a Keeper!”  This book changed forever how I lead!  Recently I have had the privilege of interacting with Mike and he graciously agreed to do several guest blogs and has given me his “cart-blanch” permission to excerpt from Leading With Questions in future posts! Thank You Mike!

Guest Post by Michael Marquardt

Asking rather than telling, questions rather than answers, has become the key to leadership excellence. Peter Drucker noted that the leader of the past may have been a person who knew how to tell, but certainly the leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask. With the growing complexity and speed of change, the traditional hierarchical model of leadership that worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. The leader simply won’t know enough to adequately tell people what to do. No one person can master all the data needed to address the complex issues.

Over 2000 years ago, Socrates realized that leading was much more a matter of asking the right questions than of giving answers, and developed what he called the dialectic – a method of questioning in order to get at the truth.

Today’s leaders face the tremendous challenge of leading in an answer-oriented, fix-it-quick world where more people around them clamor for fast answers—sometimes any answer. Ironically, responding to such pressures will cast them adrift as they will be moving from impactful, long-term solutions to real problems. Leaders need to realize that statements alone do not lead to deep thinking; rather questions ultimately lead to breakthroughs in productivity or innovation. Leaders who lead with questions know that the quiet distinctions and fresh perspectives gained by questions reveal new possibilities.

Too few leaders lead with questions; rather they tend to dictate or debate rather than inquire and dialogue. Most leaders are unaware of amazing power of questions, and how they can generate short-term results and long-term learning and success. Leaders who do not ask questions tend to experience dire consequences. Most disasters share a common thread—the inability or unwillingness of the participants and leaders to raise questions about their concerns.  Some group members may fear that they are the only one who has a particular concern (when, in fact, many people have similar concerns). Others feel that their question has already been answered in the minds of the other group members, and if they ask the question, it would be considered a dumb question—and they would be “put down” as being stupid or not going along with the group.

Several years ago, Michael Hammer chronicled several corporate successes and failures. He examined why Wal-mart overcame Sears, why Pan Am became extinct, and why Howard Johnson was beaten by McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC. All these failures, he concluded, shared one underlying cause—leadership did not ask the probing questions that might have led them to challenge their basic assumptions, to refresh their strategies, and to change their ways of operating. Such questions may have prevented the death or demise of these companies.

Now a question for you:

What  probing questions do you need to ask yourself and those you lead that will challenge your basic assumptions, refresh your strategies, and  change your ways of operating?

Which of your friends would thank you if you forwarded this post to them?

Michael 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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2 thoughts on ““Leading with Questions”

  1. I find that one of the reasons great leaders ask questions is because they question themselves. They dont assume they know things – they recognize that their understanding is limited. The converse, assuming they know, can be very destructive. It limits their influence in relationships, credibility and knowledge.

  2. Mark–Well Said! What are some of your favorite questions?

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