Questions— for forty years I’ve asked questions on the subject of leadership. You might think that as time has gone by, and I’ve received thousands of answers, questions have become less important to me. But the opposite has been true. The more questions I ask, the more valuable I recognize them to be. Without the wise counsel and insightful answers I’ve received to questions over those decades, I wonder where I would be today. Certainly I would not have grown as much or come as far. The people who cared enough for me to give me guidance and advice when I asked questions have made a world of difference in my leadership.
If you want to be successful and reach your leadership potential, you need to embrace asking questions as a lifestyle. Here’s why:
Have you ever failed to ask a question because you thought it might be dumb? I have! Too many times I’ve allowed my desire not to look foolish to keep me from gaining knowledge that I needed. Richard Thalheimer, the founder of the Sharper Image, once asserted, “It is better to look uninformed than to be uninformed.” For that reason we need to curb our egos and ask questions, even at the risk of looking foolish.
If you’re worried that asking questions will make you look bad, let me give you some perspective. I enjoy reading Marilyn vos Savant’s column in Sunday’s Parade magazine. Listed in Guinness World Records for “Highest IQ,” she answers difficult and often bewildering questions from readers. In her column of July 29, 2007, she decided to share questions she found difficult to answer, not because they were too tough, but because— well, take a look:
“I notice you have the same first name as Marilyn Monroe. Are you related?”
“Do you think daylight saving time could be contributing to global warming? The longer we have sunlight, the more it heats the atmosphere.”
“I see falling stars nearly every night. They seem to come out of nowhere. Have stars ever fallen out of any known constellations?”
“When I dream, why don’t I need my glasses to see?”
“Can a ventriloquist converse with his dentist while his teeth are being worked on?”
“I just observed a flock of geese flying in a ‘V’ formation. Is that the only letter they know?”
Now don’t you feel better about the quality of your questions? If you want answers, you must ask questions.
No one has helped me understand the value of questions more than my friend Bobb Biehl. In his book Asking Profound Questions, Bobb writes: There is a gigantic difference between the person who has no questions to help him/ her process situations and the person who has profound questions available.
Here are a few of the differences:
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Shallow answers
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Profound answers
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Lack of confidence
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Life confidence
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Poor decision making
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Wise decision making
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Live in mental fog
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Crystal clear focus in life
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Work on low priorities
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Focused on high priorities
WITHOUT PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Immature processing
WITH PROFOUND QUESTIONS: Mature processing
Asking the right question of the right person at the right time is a powerful combination because the answers you receive set you up for success. IBM founder Thomas J. Watson said, “The ability to ask the right question is more than half the battle of finding the answer.” But that’s true only if you are willing to ask the question.
Growing up I used to watch Let’s Make a Deal, the TV show where contestants often got to choose among three doors to try to win the grand prize. It was fun to watch, but it was pure luck. Sometimes people won great stuff. Other times they got nothing. In life’s journey we face many doors. Hidden behind them are all kinds of possibilities leading to opportunities, experiences, and people, but the doors must be opened before we can go through them.
Questions are the keys to opening these doors. For example, recently I had the privilege to interview former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at Stanford University for the Leadercast event. Knowing that more than 150,000 people would be watching, I wanted to ask good questions of this amazing woman who has such extraordinary knowledge and life experiences so that we could learn from her. I spent days doing research, reading her books, and talking to people who would give me insight into her.
When I finally met her, I found her to be delightful and insightful. With each question I was able to open more doors of understanding into her experiences. By the end of our time I had found a wonderful friend. I learned a great deal, and I believe the rest of the audience did too.
Problem Solving Questions:
As a leader you must always be looking forward for the sake of your team. When you face a problem and don’t know what steps need to be taken to advance the team, ask the following questions:
Why do we have this problem?
How do we solve this problem?
What specific steps must we take to solve this problem?
Management expert Peter Drucker said, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.” He knew the secret. Successful leaders relentlessly ask questions and have an incurable desire to pick the brains of the people they meet.
I often watch speakers stand before an audience and work to build a case for their ideas. They would be more successful if instead they tried building a relationship with the people in the room. The word communication comes from the Latin word communis, meaning “common.” Before we can communicate we must establish commonality. The greater the commonality, the greater the potential for connection and communication. The goal of effective communication is to prompt people to think, Me too! Too many speakers seem to elicit the thought So what?
The most effective way to connect with others is by asking questions. All of us have experienced the interest of others when we were lost and asked for directions. People will usually stop what they’re doing to help others. Questions connect people.
Of course, you have to ask the right questions. In 2013 I was invited to play in the AT& T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Every golfer dreams of playing this great course, but being asked to play it with the best golfers in the world was beyond my dreams! For the event, another amateur and I were paired with two pros: Steve LeBrun and Aaron Watkins. We had such a great time. But let me tell you something: over the four days of golf with them, the professional golfers never once asked me any questions about golf. Not once did they ask me to help them line up a putt or to give advice about what club they should use. Why? Those weren’t the right questions to ask me. I have nothing of value to offer them in that area of their lives. I am an amateur. On the other hand, they did ask me a lot of questions about personal growth, leadership, and book writing. In fact, they even asked if I would sign books for them.
What you ask matters. So does how you ask. If we want to connect with people, we can be like the census taker who had driven many miles down a remote country road to reach a mountain cabin. As he pulled up, a woman sitting on the porch yelled at him, “We don’t want any. We’re not buying anything.”
“I’m not selling anything,” the census taker said. “I’m here to take the census.”
“We don’t have one,” the woman said.
“You don’t understand,” the census taker said. “We’re trying to find out how many people there are in the United States.”
“Well,” she said, “you sure wasted your time driving out here to ask me, because I don’t have any idea.”
As playwright George Bernard Shaw observed, “The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”
Note from Bob: You have just read only 3 of 8 reasons why questions are so valuable. You will also be pleased to know that today’s Guest Post/Excerpt from John Maxwell’s great book is only the first of several excerpts you will be seeing here over the next several months. If you want to continue to sharpen you “Leading With Questions” skills I highly recommend for you to click “HERE” to purchase “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions” to add to your library.
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