In meetings, John D. Rockerfeller would sit and not say anything. Many times he would appear to be asleep. However when he did speak, it was always a question. It was a question that would break the status quo of the discussion and bring out new viewpoints on a challenge. Michael Dell doesn’t speak much in meetings, but when he does it is almost always a question.
As a business school professor I teach by asking questions. Verne Harnish says “we are good at finding answers to questions, leaders find the right questions”.
Nobody knows as much as Everybody
Business regularly promote the best performer to be team leader. The top salesman becomes sales manager. The top programmer becomes team lead. The top engineer becomes operations manager.
The previous strength of the individual becomes their greatest weakness as a leader.
They know they were the best, so they have the best answers. When they feel a little threatened in the new role, they stop asking questions. They diminish the impact of those around them.
Nobody knows as much as everybody. Even if I were to be technically the smartest person in the room, the combined capacity of others will be more powerful. We ask questions when we are humble. Liz Wiseman, author of “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter”, says we ask good questions when we are not thinking “I am the smartest person in this room”. Liz calls this leader a “multiplier”.
- be curious,
- be open-ended,
- be engaged and
- dig deeper.
Uncertainty and Frustration stop you from Leading Others
Last week, I was with a good friend and our 3 kids at the beach. We left the beach at sunset and cycled home. When we reached home, I discovered that we were locked out of the house. I had left another key in the inside of the lock, and was now unable to open the door from outside. It was getting dark and our 3 kids (between the ages of 3 and 5) were hungry and asking repeatedly “why are we outside?”
I felt stupid. I stopped communicating. I was getting frustrated by the kids asking “why are we outside?” I was angry at myself.
I didn’t speak much to my friend and our kids. First, I searched see if any windows or doors were open. After 10 minutes walking around the house, no joy. Fort Knox.
I asked my friend “do you have your mobile?” I made some calls to get the number of the security company. I finally spoke to someone who said they would send a car, it would probably take 40 minutes. I said “ok”.
It was only now that I took a deep breath and explained the situation to my friend and our 3 kids. I could see that my daughter had really wanted to help and she felt bad that I had ignored her. My well-meaning actions had alienated the others. Luckily my friend had created a little game to play with the kids while we waited. He got the towels from the bag to wrap the kids and keep them warm. I was no longer the leader in this group. My friend was the emotional centre of the group. I was an individual specialist who had emotionally abandoned the group in a moment of need. I lost control because of my frustration at myself.
I stop asking questions when I am angry at myself, feel overwhelmed or uncertain.
The Territory of Leadership is Uncertainty
Managers deal in improving the status quo. Management is about doing the same things a little better. Leaders deal in uncertainty. Leadership is about giving others the confidence to move forward, helping them believe their own answers.
A friend of mine, Jacques, is the father of a tennis player. If she loses, he asks “when did you know you were going to lose? Why did you not stop right then?” A leader must be able to regain belief. When a team is winning, the captain can be a manager. When the team is losing and doubt is in the minds of the players, the captain must become a leader. He must take control of emotions. First his own. Then he must project his certainty out to the group. Leadership is emotional work. Leadership is about making sense of emotions and helping everyone reach a mental state that allows for performance.
A great leader believes in people and asks questions that help them perform.
John DeMartini talks about a transformational moment in his life. He was 17, living in a tent and surfing the beaches of Hawaii with no purpose or plan. A 93 year old man was talking with a group on the beach. John listened. At the end John approached the man. The man asked him about his life and what he wanted to do. John found himself answering that he would be a teacher. The man listened and when he finished, looked him in the eyes and said “This is going to happen. You are going to be a great teacher. What will you do next?” The man said these words with such conviction and belief that John knew it would happen. John’s goal in life is to do the same for a 17 year old when he himself is 93 years old. Leadership is about helping people believe in themselves. It is helping someone reach enough certainty to take action.
The Best Questions…
- The best Leadership Question: “What is the next right thing to do?”
- The best Teaching Question: “What do you think? What other options do you see?”
- The best Coaching Question: “You have achieved what you set out to accomplish. Imagine yourself there. What does it feel like?”
- The best Friendship Question: “How are you?”
- The best Parenting Question: “What was the best moment of your day?”
- The best Sales Question: “(I understand that price is important.) What other criteria are important in making this decision?” (The implicit question: “What are you comparing this to?”)
What question will you ask?
The Origin of Leaders
The next post in this series will turn back inwards and look at why you would choose the path of leadership and stick to it for life. What is a fulfilling life? How can you live so that you reach the last day and say “I don’t want to go, but if I had it over again I would live much the same way.”
—Conor Neill is the professor of Leadership Communication at IESE Business School in Barcelona and an entrepreneur who has founded four companies. Years ago, he was a manager in the Human Performance consulting practice of Accenture. He loves rugby, mountain climbing and will run a marathon next march. Conor frequently blogs at conorneill.com and tweets as cuchullainn