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  • Writer's pictureAndy Hind

Previous Leadership Blog - Questioning

An essential leadership skill

One of the essential competencies of a successful leader is their ability to ask the right the right situation...and then to listen. Questions that promote thinking, challenge assumptions and guide colleagues to a deeper level of thought and reflection.

Leaders today need to revisit this overlooked skills of asking rich questions.

Leaders sometimes assume that people look to them for answers — bold assertions that build people’s confidence in their competence. But in reality, that kind of approach erodes trust, especially at a time when so much is manifestly uncertain. Today's leaders should ask powerful and inspiring questions, convey that they don’t have the answers, and solicit others’ help to find them. When a leader is prepared to express vulnerability and asking for help it is a strong signal to others that they are trusting, and are more likely to be trusted in return. In fact, if a leader can learn to ask questions well, it can help them to connect with those they lead. Thinking together can put you on the path to solving intractable problems and sparking innovative thinking.

As leaders, we sometimes feel that our role is to direct, decide, declare and demonstrate. Yes, leaders are often called upon to take action, to make a decision, to delegate, to exhibit knowledge and to command. However, while leaders understandably focus on all these things, sometimes the single most important thing a leader can do is ask the right question and actually listen to the answer.

Leaders do a lot of talking. Sometimes they do all the talking. Sometimes people talk because they like the sound of their own voice, or think they know it all. Arrogance is not leadership. Sometimes though, leaders do too much talking because they think it is expected of them. After all, they are in charge. After all, people are looking to them to point the way. After all, they need to prove that they deserve their position of leadership and are capable. In other words, frequently leaders talk too much because they think they have something to prove.

When leaders do too much of the talking, the directing, the deciding, the declaring and the demonstrating, the people around them become dependent on the leader to carry most of the load. This isn’t good for an organisation over the long- term, because capability atrophies and potential is squandered. It can lead to the creation of a culture of dependency

When leaders do too much of the talking, their own leadership suffers. Over time, people tell the leader what they want to hear, not what they need to know. Over time, a leader stops learning. Over time, a leader becomes disconnected.

Questions are powerful. The right question, asked at the right time, in the right tone, with the right motivation, can reveal real problems and new possibilities. Genuine interest and careful attention to a question’s answers can help build an organisation’s capability and confidence, and forge a stronger connection to the leader.

A simple question for any leader to start any professional discussion: “What do you think is most important for me to know?” In the more difficult conversations..a pause and a simple request: “What can you share with me that will help me to understand?” In situations where the leader might think that someone may be headed in the wrong direction, a probing question that facilitates a shared understanding of possible consequences. “What would be our next steps?” “How do you think our colleagues would respond?”

The best questions are open-ended and can lead in many directions. The best questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, but require thought and elaboration. The best questions are asked not to demonstrate expertise or express an opinion, but to seek genuine understanding. The best questions provoke the necessary conversations and facilitate agreement.

When a leader asks a real question and listens to a revealing answer, they must be willing to respond to what they’ve learned. Maybe that’s why too many people conclude it’s easier to do most of the talking. But that’s not leadership.

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