For “old kind” leaders, leadership was a known entity. Leaders were powerful. Their organizations ran like well-oiled machines—efficient and productive. They followed best practices, knew all the answers and pointed the way. They created the vision and determined the strategy. And they told others what to do.
The old models of leadership built on telling people what to do simply aren’t the best strategy for today’s leaders. When being the best machine is critical to success, then telling makes sense. But today’s organizations have a strategic need to be more connected, innovative and creative. This calls for a new kind of leader – one who is purpose-driven and able to lead open, collaborative organizations. To lead more engaged workforces that connect directly with a larger community of partners, creators and customers. Where culture trumps structure. And innovation is strategic and customer driven.
My training as a leadership coach, coupled with my decades of experience building and leading creative teams, has proven that a key skill set for the modern leader is asking questions. Powerful questions.
The truth is most of us are not powerful listeners. Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, will confide that we spend a good deal of our time listening to our internal dialogue, more concerned with what we will say next rather than what is truly being said. Asking powerful questions begins with deep listening and a skill set that is developed over time.
Here are six things to keep in mind as you begin to explore the power of using questions to lead:
1. Believe in the person in front of you
Consider a new perspective, one in which you are not necessarily there to solve their problem or give advice. Instead, believe with everything you have that they are capable, smart, creative and resourceful. How might that affect your interaction? Let them know that you believe in them. Prove it based on the interest you show and the questions you ask.
2. Be curious
Don’t make up your mind too quickly or operate from a framework in which you know all the answers. Be genuinely curious about what other people say. Open yourself to the possibility that they may surprise you in wondrous ways.
3. Ask open-ended questions
Asking yes-or-no questions doesn’t encourage deeper exploration and understanding of the topic at hand. These questions are hardly engaging. Experienced questioners ask more open questions such as “what does that mean to you?” Or “tell me where do you think we should go from here? Or simply “what else?”
4. Listen with everything you have
This is more than just focusing on the person in front of you. Go deeper. Imagine that the two of you are the only two people in the universe, then engage.
5. Remember that feedback is a gift
Give permission for people to give you feedback and hold you accountable. Create the space that allows that to happen. Creating conditions that make it easy for your team to give you honest feedback means you’ll be better prepared to face future business challenges together. And you’ll enjoy the added benefit of finding out over time that the people you lead are more likely to be open to receiving honest feedback from you when they need to hear it. This is real leadership.
6. Beware of the leading question
If you’re in a leadership position and you ask a leading question, you’re far more likely to get the answer you’re seeking than you are to get honest feedback. You already know that. So why ask the question? If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that’s simply a manipulative way to tell people something without the honestly of owning the authority you’re exercising. These sorts of behaviors aren’t valuable. They’re dishonest. They don’t fool anyone. And they undermine trust.
These leadership truths aren’t always easy.
Practicing these skills may feel messy and humbling, even embarrassing at times. You may feel a lack of confidence at giving up some control. Remember, any ‘control’ you feel based on manipulation and inappropriately exercised power is an illusion, and sets you up for more likely failure under times of crisis. When you start to practice leading with powerful questions and powerful listening, you open yourself (and your organization) to more trust, enhanced creativity and increased potential for innovation.
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