Why good leadership is the art of asking the right questions

In today’s frantic paced world, there’s often an expectation that leaders need to have answers at their fingertips, and that’s it’s not OK to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”

Why good leadership is the art of asking the right questions

Business Strategy


In today’s frantic paced world, there’s often an expectation that leaders need to have answers at their fingertips, and that’s it’s not OK to say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure”.

However, in a world of increasing complexity and ambiguity, there are lots of unknowns.  It’s not possible for leaders to have all the answers all the time.

Additionally, we are surrounded by more information than ever and it’s becoming harder to know which sources to trust.  We are bombarded with information, disinformation and loads and loads of data.

Discernment and good judgement is critical – particularly because in a complex, ambiguous and inter-connected world everything may not be what it seems. When we take something on face value we may be missing key pieces of information or overlooking unseen options. 

And when leaders hold dogmatic views and are certain about their opinion they open ourselves to decision failures.

Certainty enhances bias
History is littered with stories of leaders who thought they had the answers, ignored advice and consequently, made poor decisions.  From the failure of Kodak, to AOL’s disastrous purchase of Time Warner, to the collapse of Lehman Brother’s and the demise of Arrium Steel.

Brian Cox, Advanced Fellow in Particle Physics at the University of Manchester said: Being dogmatic is not a positive attribute. Being certain about things is actually not a positive thing. And so I think somehow our societies have got into this position where people feel that certainty and strength and this kind of 'I make decisions', that that is a trait to be valued.

When leaders are certain they are right, they are close themselves off to other ideas and different opinions.  This can lead to myopic and poor decision making, because of the bias we all have in how we process information and make decisions.

Your mindset is critical
Stanford Academic, Carol Dweck, confirmed this in her research on fixed and growth mindsets.

She found that people who have a fixed mindset see intelligence as static – a fixed trait.   As a result, they want to always look smart and appear as though they have all the answers.  They believe that success is based on talent alone – not work.  This means they will avoid challenges and give up more easily.  They also ignore feedback, which they see as criticism, and feel threatened by the success of others. 

In contrast, people with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be developed through hard work and effort.  Consequently, they are more eager to embrace learning, take on challenges and persist, despite setbacks.   They love learning and usually display higher resilience.  They are also more willing to learn from others and receive feedback.

In her book, Mindset : Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential, she highlights companies that have failed because of their leader’s fixed mindset.

Embrace scepticism
In contrast, leaders who are comfortable with uncertainty have a growth mindset and are more willing to embrace the art of curiosity. They recognise that good decision making comes from asking lots of questions, not finding the one right answer.

And that’s where scepticism plays its part.

According to the dictionary, to be sceptical is to be not easily convinced or to have doubts or reservations. It’s easy to paint the sceptic in a negative light – as the person who’s cynical and therefore to be dismissed.

When in fact being sceptical means you are curious. It means you recognise you don’t have all the answers and so are open to challenge and debate, rather than having a fixed idea or opinion. Sceptics question. They critically think and ponder ideas. They reflect on what is really happening.

In doing this, they take the time to ensure they are:
  • Considering – what’s happening around them and reflect on what they are seeing and hearing, and therefore what action should be taken
  • Challenging – assumptions they and others may have to ensure they are making a good decision and are being open to dissenting views and outlier opinions
  • Checking – their facts and interpretations of those facts as they are on the lookout for bias, which may adversely impact their thought processes and decisions.

The art of the good question
Core to this is being able to ask a good question.

This isn’t about asking a question to get the answer they want. Instead leaders need to ask questions that:
  • Clarify their understanding
  • Help to seek out different ideas
  • Ensure that outlier opinions and diverse views are heard
  • Make sure the trade-offs from decisions are clearly articulated
  • Uncover elements that may be missing from the conversation
  • Ensure the discussion has examined the issue from multiple perspectives
  • Challenge their own thinking processes, and that of those around them

By asking questions a leader shows they are interested in the ideas being shared and open to new information and thoughts.  They are also welcoming divergent views and encouraging debate and discussion.  All characteristics that are critical for successful leadership.

So instead of encouraging leaders to find the answers, encourage them to ask the right question.

It was the French anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss, who said: The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.

Being open to asking the right question is a hallmark of influential leadership.   So, what question will you ask next?

Michelle Gibbings is a change leadership and career expert and founder of Change Meridian.  Michelle works with global leaders and teams to help them accelerate progress. She is the Author of ‘Step Up: How to Build Your Influence at Work’.  For more information: www.michellegibbings.com or contact [email protected].

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