There is the general misconception that being a Leader means that people look to you for answers or bold assertions that build people’s confidence in your competence as a leader. Not really. One of the main skills of a good leader is that of asking good questions.
In reality having the approach, that as a Business Leader you know all the answers, especially at a time when so much is manifestly uncertain, just ends up eroding trust. If as a Business leader you really think you have the answers to all important questions, then you are either clueless — you have no idea how rapidly the world is changing — or that you are lying. In either case, you won’t find that trust that you’ve been looking for and which any leader needs from his or her followers.
Instead, leaders should ask powerful and inspiring questions, conveying that they don’t have the answers, and solicit others’ help to find them.
To those business leaders that tend to be nervous about this approach, thinking that it will make them seem like they don’t know what they’re doing, I kindly ask them to shake this perception off them. Research has shown that expressing vulnerability and asking for help is a strong signal to others that you are trusting, and you’re more likely to be trusted in return. Remember that being self-aware and sharing freely your weaknesses is a sign of high emotional intelligence. In fact, if you can learn to ask questions well, it can help you connect with others. Thinking together can put you on the path to solving intractable problems and sparking innovative thinking.
However, let me be clear. This is not an open invitation to ask pointed, loaded or difficult questions that put others on the spot, like “How can you deliver 10% higher productivity?” or “Are you missing anything here?”
The kind of questions leaders need to ask are those that invite people to come together to explore major new opportunities that your organisation hasn’t identified yet. Like for example, what opportunities can be work upon that could create much more value than we have delivered in the past? What are the emerging needs and buying patterns of our customers that could provide the foundation for an entirely new business?
It is vital that I add one small tip. By focusing your questions, as a business leader, on matters related to new opportunities rather than on the existing activities of the organisation, will make sure that team members do not perceive that your questioning is a way of putting someone on the spot or as a sign of weakness from your end, as your are not expected to know the answers. These broader questions also communicate that as a Business leader have a sense of ambition, that you want to take the organisation way beyond where it is today.
These questions also invite collaboration. To make the most of them, don’t ask them in closed leadership meetings. Instead, broadcast them throughout your organisation.
By asking questions as a leader, you also communicate that questioning is important. You’ll inspire people to identify new opportunities and to ask for help when they need it. These behaviours lead to a culture of learning, which is critical, since the institutions that will thrive in the future are those that encourage everyone to learn faster and more rapidly expand the value that they deliver to their stakeholders. This will be especially true if as a business leader you encourage exploration that can generate new insights into potential answers to your questions, rather than simply expecting complete answers and nothing less. This will encourage people to make small moves initially that can quickly help to increase excitement about the question since participants can quickly begin to see progress. As early answers to your question begin to emerge (as a result of experiments or research, for example), share them, even if they are not groundbreaking. They’ll contribute to your culture of learning and show to all that your questioning is generating new insights and in turn increasing everyone’s confidence to chip in.
Leaders who ask powerful questions have the greatest success in both seizing new opportunities and addressing unexpected challenges — and they build cultures that will carry these benefits into the future.