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Great Leadership Requires Asking Questions

By: Mark Craemer | 11 Dec | 2 comments

 


So often we look to leaders to provide answers to the most challenging problems we face, whether in politics or business. In fact, great leaders are those who instead ask the right questions and engage others to arrive at the best answers together.

The media overly promotes a single businessman, politician or sports star as responsible for overall success. As a result, it’s hard to think of Apple without Steve Jobs, J.P. Morgan Chase without Jamie Dimon, and the current Denver Broncos without Payton Manning.

We tend to therefore associate the success of any group as overly reliant on those who lead them. Leaders are vital, of course, but the best are those who inspire others and share leadership to arrive at the most creative solutions.

Leaders play a pivotal role, yet achieving success is predicated on getting more from the individuals they lead. This means engaging everyone to contribute fully because the best solutions come when the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

A recent Forbes magazine article discussed the book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Liz Wiseman, and quoted the author as writing that the best multipliers “are leaders who bring out intelligence in others and get the best ideas and work out of the people they lead. ”

One of the common traps of leadership is thinking you have to have all the answers and that it is entirely up to you to provide people with the right answers. This is narrow-minded and it is detrimental to multiplier thinking.

“When a leader asks the questions,” says Wiseman, “they channel the energy and intelligence of their team on the challenge at hand, and they shift the burden of thinking onto others.”

Instead of looking to answer the big and important questions on his or her own, the multiplier asks provocative questions of the group and encourages them to work on it together. This engages employees like nothing else and no longer has them sitting on the sidelines awaiting the answer from their leader.

In the book Living the Questions: Essays Inspired by the Work and Life of Parker J. Palmer, he is quoted as follows:

The great gift we receive on the inner journey is the certain knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. Not only are there other acts in town, but some of them from time to time are even better than ours! On this inner journey we learn that we do not have too carry the whole load, that we can be empowered by sharing the load with others, and that sometimes we are even free to lay our part of the load down. On the inner journey we learn that co-creation leaves us free to do only what we are called and able to do, and to trust the rest to other hands. With that learning, we become leaders who cast less shadow and more light.

Leaders who encourage this co-creation demonstrate humility in the face of the attention attributed entirely to them.

Jim Collins stated that great leaders are those who look out the window when things are going right, and in the mirror when things are not going right. It is this strength of character that enables great leaders to ignore the limelight society wants to throw upon them and instead diffuse it by sharing the glory with others with success and taking responsibility with failure.

This takes courage and patience. It takes resilience and persistence. And ultimately it takes trust that the individuals you lead have the ability to reach the best solutions collectively.

These best solutions require the best questions and a collective approach to reaching the answers.

Read other posts by Mark Craemer

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Comments and Discussions

Favorite Questions?

Evening Mark,

I appreciated your post and I'm curious. Are there particular questions that you have found useful in your work with leaders? If they are not naturally drawn to asking the kinds of question you speak of in your post are there questions you have found useful in engaging their curiosity?

Thanks,
Dan

Response

Hi Dan,

Thanks for reading my post. Not sure I have a good answer to your question here. That is, I can't say I know specific questions to ask leaders so that they become better at asking questions themselves. However, I often take the same approach with coaching leaders as I did when I was a developmental editor working with authors. Rather than make changes to the manuscript or even suggestions on what to change, I asked probing questions regarding the author's intentions. What is the motivation of the character? How does this scene move the plot forward? In the Quaker tradition of what are called "clearness committees" this opportunity to ask open ended questions without an agenda and without expecting an immediate answer, giving the person an opportunity to reflect, it can be extremely powerful. With authors as well as anyone, I think simply asking these questions can bring about a deeper and often more mindful reflection to bring about more complete answers. With leaders I try to ask the kinds of questions that will get them to think differently than they typically do and encourage them to reflect on how the right questions can create conversations that may lead to better answers. I'm not afraid to ask what may appear to be the "stupid" questions when everyone else may be too afraid to do so. And I try to encourage these leaders to accept and welcome humility because I believe it is an essential quality of great leadership. It is very hard to be humble and yet have all the answers. Ultimately, I think asking great questions can only encourage shared leadership and I think this is best for most organizations. Thanks again, Dan.

Best,
Mark

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