Leading Through Questions: The Transformative Power of Inquiry

December 1, 2023

“The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask questions,” wrote management guru Peter Drucker. Yet the majority of leaders still default to telling employees what to do rather than asking for their input and involvement. Author Gary Cohen calls this tendency the “just tell” style of leadership. But “just ask” leadership, centered on questioning, inspires greater accountability, surfaces innovative ideas, resolves conflicts, and motivates employees to higher levels of performance.

The Benefits of Leading by Asking

Asking questions conveys respect for people’s expertise. As Cohen writes, “No one likes receiving orders.” When leaders issue commands, they send the message that employees’ perspectives don’t matter. Questions, on the other hand, recognize the experience and insights each person brings to the table.

Inquisitive leaders also unlock greater creativity from their teams. Questions grant employees the autonomy to determine the best approach, rather than dictating solutions from the top down. People support what they help create, so leading by questions boosts engagement.

Additionally, questions increase accountability without micromanaging. Rather than hovering over employees’ shoulders, leaders can pose targeted questions about current projects, recent issues, and potential solutions. Such inquiries demonstrate care for people’s work without being overbearing.

Questions also enable leaders to gather more complete information, especially in times of crisis or change. When the stakes seem high, many leaders centralize control rather than soliciting wider input. Yet questions elicit facts and perspectives that directives cannot.

Finally, leading through questions builds unity and consistency between espoused and practiced company values. Leaders can ask, “Do our everyday decisions align with our stated principles?” Addressing gaps between talk and action promotes an ethical culture.

Best Questions to Lead By

The most effective leaders ask a variety of strategic questions, including:

  • Values: “Are we as focused on ethics as profits?” “Is there alignment between our stated and operating values?”
  • Accountability: “What feedback do my subordinates have about my leadership?” “Are team members repeating mistakes without consequences?”  
  • Participation: “Why am I the only one talking during meetings?” “How can I elicit more diverse perspectives?”
  • Decision Making: “What assumptions underlie our current data and conclusions?” “How might conflicting data actually expand our understanding?”
  • Motivation: “Have I provided clear choices and outcomes regarding subpar work?” “How can I credibly acknowledge gaps in my own knowledge?” 

As these questions demonstrate, leading through inquiry requires humility, self-awareness, and deep respect for employees. Rather than seeking to self-promote as the person with all the answers, inquisitive leaders genuinely value others’ input.

Getting Started with Question-Based Leadership  

Shifting to a question-based approach requires first examining one’s mindset as a leader. It’s natural to want to provide answers and direction, but leading through questions counters our tendency to tell others what to think and do.

Leaders can begin by asking open-ended questions in 1-on-1 meetings with employees. These private conversations allow people to share freely without fear of embarrassment in front of the larger group.

Another tactic is to start each staff meeting with a strategic question focused on solving current problems or capitalizing on future opportunities. Dedicate the first 5-10 minutes to this discussion before providing any additional directives.

Finally, solicit input from key stakeholders when making important decisions rather than defaulting to authority. Ask clarifying questions when data seems incomplete or biased. And follow up on execution by inquiring about progress instead of demanding compliance.

Questions open communication channels that commands often close. Although leading through inquiry may not come naturally at first, it surfaces the diversity of thought and experience essential to organizational success. So take Peter Drucker’s advice when leading your team – adopt a “know how to ask” mindset. Suppress the urge to always provide answers, and instead lead by unlocking the answers in others.

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