Leaders Ask Questions


Asking questions may be one of the least talked about secret weapons of a great leader. In fact, I believe it may be one of the most undeveloped skills in leadership. Many businesses and nearly all churches are filled with leaders who are professional communicators. That is, they are paid to talk. They spend a good portion of their time figuring out what they are going to say and how they are going to say it, and then delivering the message.

They don’t get hired to ask people questions. They get hired to tell people what they think or believe about a certain topic or product. Pastors are the worst offenders—they are so used to everyone wanting to hear what they have to say that they have a difficult time listening to (or caring about) what others have to say.

Yet the Bible we carry around and teach from is very clear:

Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak. (James 1:19) Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish. (Prov. 18:13 NLT)

As author and management consultant Peter Drucker put it, “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell. The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”

Back in the day, it was possible for one person to hold most of the knowledge and be able to guide an organization to success through working the system. Not anymore. Today’s world is moving too fast, information is changing too rapidly, and no one person (or group of people) has an edge on what is needed for success.

Additionally, a person who doesn’t ask questions comes off as proud and untouchable. There is an air of superiority that emanates from the know-it-all. He or she may not know it, but others don’t enjoy being around someone who has all the answers.

A person who asks questions

  • assumes there is something she can learn;

  • exudes humility;

  • infuses confidence in people around him;

  • helps introverts or nonverbal leaders communicate; and

  • is constantly learning.

A person who doesn’t ask questions

  • assumes she already knows all the facts;

  • exudes a cocky attitude;

  • risks looking like a fool;

  • shuts down people who don’t have as forceful of a personality;

  • impresses himself more than others; and

  • forfeits prime learning opportunities.

I had the opportunity to interview author Gary Cohen about his book Just Ask Leadership. So much of what he wrote connects with my thoughts about leadership. Here are some notable takeaways from the book, and from my conversation with Gary:

  • Hold back. In meetings, leaders have difficulty keeping quiet when they have an idea that’s better than the ones currently being batted around. Revealing that idea, however, often spoils the learning and discovery process of their coworkers.

  • Rein it in. If you think you’re talking too much in a meeting, so does everyone else.

  • Individualize. Centralized leadership doesn’t work with the current generation. People want to work their way, not your way. They know what motivates them and how they best achieve results and obtain information, and they want to receive full credit for their efforts.

  • Get it from the source. The person best equipped to solve a problem is the one who lives with it every day.

A while ago I was in an all-day meeting with several coworkers. We had brought in a consultant from across the country to help guide our conversations and lead us to some significant decisions. I was sitting next to a leader and noticed he was multitasking all day long. He would answer e-mails, work on projects, and also jump in and out of participating in the meeting.

It annoyed me a bit. We spent a lot of money to make this meeting happen, and I needed the best of what he could bring. I could have jumped on him during a break and told him to turn his e-mail off. I could have made a general announcement to everyone to focus and turn off outside distractions. I could have sent him a scolding e-mail the next day.

Instead, I waited for a full week. The next time we met together for our weekly face time, I asked a few questions. It went something like this: “Last week I couldn’t help but notice you were answering e-mails and working on projects during our meeting. Tell me about that. Did you find it difficult to focus on the topic? Was the day’s discussion boring to you? Is there something I’ve done to communicate that your wisdom and participation in those discussions isn’t welcome? Is there something we can do to change the environment?”

He came back to me a few days later and thanked me for the way I approached it. He felt honored and respected. This is just one example of hundreds I’ve experienced where asking questions, rather than drawing conclusions and making statements, has been the key to removing emotion and finding a solution to a problem.

Authenticity is key. You can ask questions in order to manipulate people to do what you want and make them think it was their idea. But that’s not authentic, question-based leadership. That might get you what you want. But you risk losing credibility in the process. Gary Cohen said it this way:

The right questions rely on the leader’s ability to communicate authentic interest in learning the answer. They come from a place of not knowing. The right questions are open-ended, carry the possibility of true discovery, and demonstrate a willingness to share and bestow credit.

Read more in Fairness is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace

Tim Stevens1 Comment