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Leadership: The Power of Questions

May 6, 2022


There is a popular notion that great leaders are people who have answers to challenging questions. Politicians would certainly like you to believe that is true. They are constantly trying to convince constituents that they (and their party) have all the answers. The truth, however, is that great leaders are often people who ask great questions. Great questions lead to better answers and better solutions. The problem is that too many leaders have the mistaken idea that only they have the right to ask those great questions. Pia Lauritzen (@PiaLauritzen), Cofounder of Qvest, insists, if you want to be a better leader, “change your questioning habits.”[1] She explains:


The idea that leaders can have more impact by asking the right questions [has a long history]. As early as 375 B.C., Plato emphasized the importance of teaching children how to ask and answer questions. That laid the foundation of a 2,400-year-old belief that not only are some questions more insightful than others, but some people are also more entitled to ask questions than others. … The conventional wisdom has always been that leaders who ask the right questions will get the right answers to make the right decisions. In my 20 years researching the nature and impact of questions, I have come to realize that not only is the conventional wisdom false, but it can also damage companies. Depriving employees of the opportunity to ask questions and reflect on their roles narrows the scope for developing insights and influencing behaviors.”


Even worse than leaders who reserve for themselves the right to ask questions are leaders who ask questions that disempower those around them. Michael J. Marquardt, a professor of Human Resource Development and International Affairs at George Washington University, explains, “Too often, we ask questions that disempower rather than empower our subordinates. These questions cast blame; they are not genuine requests for information. Other sorts of questions are often no more than thinly veiled attempts at manipulation: Don’t you agree with me on that? Aren’t you a team player? … The point isn’t that leaders just don’t ask enough questions. Often, we don’t ask the right questions. Or we don’t ask questions in a way that will lead to honest and informative answers.”[2] Marquardt and Lauritzen, it seems, are in full agreement. If you want to become a better leader, change your questioning habits.


The Power of Questions


What is the purpose of a question? Although the answer may seem obvious — to obtain information — it’s not that simple. As Marquardt noted, some questions are asked in an attempt to belittle subordinates (e.g., Why are you behind schedule? Who isn’t keeping up?). Other questions are asked to manipulate or coerce (e.g., Don’t you agree with me on that? Aren’t you a team player?). Those types of questions seldom have a place in a business environment. So, what are some legitimate purposes for asking questions?


Learning from the Past. Organizations that have experienced disruptions or failures often ask what lessons they have learned. Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Leadership consultant Eric McNulty (@RicherEarth) insists that a failure to understand the past is wasting corporate resources. He explains, “The existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said, ‘Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.’ This insight raises a profound paradox — and challenge — for those who lead. Focusing on the constant demands of the present moment and the future can keep you from fully learning from what you’ve done in the past. An inability to reflect wastes experience, leaving its value only partially harvested.”[3] He suggests leaders ask questions like: Who were we being? When were we at our best? What did we anticipate and what surprised us? What will we do differently going forward?


Fostering Innovation. Author and sales expert Geoffrey James (@Sales_Source) reports the late Steve Jobs fostered innovation by asking his teams three simple questions.[4] They were: What’s not working? Why doesn’t it work? Is this the best you can do? The latter question, if asked, should not be used impugn a person’s efforts but to spur further thought. James explains, “When Jobs asked it, he was implicitly stating that 1) he knew the employee was doing good work but 2) he would not be satisfied with anything but the employee’s very best work. By putting the burden of judgment on the employee, this question inspired them to either commit to the quality of their work or 2) go back to the proverbial drawing board.” Innovation experts Olivia Fox Cabane and Judah Pollack (@JudahThinks) suggest there are seven questions innovators tend to ask and answer (and those seven questions can be remembered using the mnemonic LUMIAMI).[5] They are:


1. LOOK: “What could you look at in a new way? Can you reverse a perspective, take a 30,000-foot view, or even ignore something you know to be true?”


2. USE: “What could you use in a new way, or for the first time? Think about ways to substitute your product or service in place of something else, for example.”


3. MOVE: “What could you move — changing its position, frequency, or speed? If you’ve been incubating an idea internally, consider how you might expose it to people outside your company. For products, think about importing features from other industries.”


4. INTERCONNECT: “What could you interconnect, for the first time or in a new way? What could you combine or connect to make the concept more powerful? What new groups or partners could you expose the idea to?”


5. ALTER: “What could you alter, in terms of design and performance? Explore how you could standardize processes. Look for ways to create a novel look and feel.”


6. MAKE: “What can you make that is truly new? This is hard, because these days it seems like there is nothing unique under the sun. However, try to think about what new meaning you might be able to create or infuse your innovation with. Is there a way to make something that already exists more specialized and focused?”


7. IMAGINE: “What can you imagine that would create a great experience for someone? Look at ways to simplify the buying process, for example.”


Improving Business Decisions. Tendayi Viki (@tendayiviki), founder and principal consultant at Benneli Jacobs, suggests leaders ask half-a-dozen questions before making a major change to a business model.[6] Those questions are: Can it be done? Should it be done? How should it be done? When should it be done? Can it be done profitably? And, can it be done at scale?


Thinking About the Future. Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly), founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, insists, artificial intelligence has made obtaining answers cheap.[7] He elaborates, “While answers become cheap, our questions become valuable. This is the inverse of the situation for the past millennia, when it was easier to ask a question than to answer it. Pablo Picasso brilliantly anticipated this inversion in 1964 when he told the writer William Fifield, ‘Computers are useless. They only give you answers.'” Another valuable benefit of artificial intelligence is that good models can let you rapidly explore different outcomes by changing variables. This can be very useful when thinking about the future. Alan Gershenhorn (@AlanGershenhorn), former Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer for UPS, believes some of the most important questions organizations should ask begin with “what if.”[8] He notes that the rise of the internet initiated “a massive exercise in ‘What if?’ that has disrupted whole industries.” Gershenhorn insists, “If an organization asks ‘What if?’ enough — and empowers its people to act on the ‘What ifs?’ — it will discover new opportunities and new possibilities.”


Encouraging Employee Engagement. Lauritzen cites a Harvard Business Review article co-authored by Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, which insists, “Asking questions keeps people engaged, which is paramount when you are trying to influence someone’s thinking or behavior.” Be careful. There is a fine line between trying to influence someone and trying to manipulate them.


Concluding Thoughts


As noted above, Kelly insists there has never been a more important time in history to ask good questions because artificial intelligence has made getting answers cheap. In addition, he writes, “We can expect future technologies such as artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation and quantum computing (to name a few on the near horizon) to unleash a barrage of new huge questions we could have never thought to ask before. In fact, it’s a safe bet that we have not asked our biggest questions yet.” That’s good news. It’s reported that Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I knew the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” If leaders spent more time pondering about the questions they should ask — and empowering subordinates to do the same — they would find greater success both now and in the future.


[1] Pia Lauritzen, “Want to make an impact? Change your questioning habits.” strategy + business, 19 January 2022.
[2] Michael J. Marquardt, Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, Jossey-Bass, 2014.
[3] Eric J. McNulty, “Four questions for a rapid leadership reset,” strategy + business, 7 July 2020.
[4] Geoffrey James, “Steve Jobs Used These 3 Deceptively Simple Questions to Turn Apple into an Innovation Powerhouse,” Inc., 22 May 2018.
[5] Melody Wilding, “7 Questions That Lead to an ‘Aha Moment’, According to Research,” Inc., 24 April 2017.
[6] Tendayi Viki, “Innovation Teams Must Answer These Six Questions Before Launching A Product,” Forbes, 30 April 2017.
[7] Kevin Kelly, “With AI, Answers Are Cheap, But Questions Are The Future,” General Electric, 6 March 2017.
[8] Alan Gershenhorn, “How Asking ‘What If?’ Will Lead Us to Tomorrow’s Innovations,” Yahoo News, 2 September 2016.

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