Leaders lead by asking better questions

Many of my friends are leaders. All my clients are. They are leaders because they naturally develop people around them. Not only because of a title. You can recognise a good leader by how many of their followers are also leaders. Leaders and their follower leaders co-develop their skills. So leaders help each other, up-and-down the hierarchy and side-by-side in a network. Leaders are not threatened by people in their structure becoming better and better at leading, they usually take pride in how others are rising up. This makes the whole organisation like a network, like a collective brain. Managers don’t always like this, they don’t like it when people lower in “rank” challenge them, asking more of them. They prefer the hierarchy, which is more like a spine and less like a brain. But this is not the place to go into the difference between leaders and managers, or brains and spines.

So this is my main point for today: Leaders ask better questions, so that their teams can search for better questions. They are on a perpetual search process for better formulations and for “higher” questions that stretches everybody to think wider, deeper and more creatively. The goal is not better answers, that belongs to the linear world where questions have specific answers that are either right or wrong. Leaders know that by formulating better questions they enable everybody around them to explore better in this complex world where there are many formulations of a question, each with many answers. Good questions lead to better questions. Leaders somehow understand this complexity, where there are multiple hypotheses that explains what we see or can measure. This means many questions, and many possible answers, and many more reformulations.

These better questions are not random, and they do not emerge out of an isolated mind. They emerge from the very networks and contexts that the leaders are immersed in. Leaders can sense the better articulation of questions, or the unsatisfactory answers from their teams. They can feel that people are not satisfied, and instead of ignoring the issue, they enable a process of reflection with others to lift out the issues that matter. Leaders can also sense when people have fallen back on routines to get things done, so often the questions leaders ask require people to stop, reflect and question. This is not always appreciated as it takes energy to step out of the groove and to engage with new questions.

Right now in South Africa we need more leaders to ask better questions. Better questions about the role of business in the society. Different questions about how to allocate resources between many competing ends. Tough questions about balancing the rights of particular groups and individuals with the well being of the society as a whole. When I look at they way questions are framed by political leaders they often pose ideologies as questions. The very nature of an ideology is that it provides answers, often irrespective of the context. While some of these questions are important, they are closed. They do not allow for much debate, exploring these questions are not really permitted. These kinds of questions do not help as they don’t only exclude beneficiaries, they also exclude the connections of minds. While leaders in the non-government sectors often scoff at political leaders, many business leaders themselves have an ideology about how a workplace should be organised, how they game should be played. They often forget their own bias. Much of my work is about helping these leaders reflect on their own theories.

Focus. Back to my main point. If you are a leader (which I believe you are) then step forward in your environment, and offer to pose the questions that are on people’s minds. Are people feeling hopeless? Then ask questions about what it would take to have hope again. Ask questions about creating alternatives, or for taking stock of what exists and what can be done with what you have.

You have to set down a framework where people know that even if it is uncomfortable, certain questions that are sensitive or uncomfortable should still be explored. If you are afraid that people will burn you on a pile of office furniture then express your question as a theory, and ask your people to help you verify or invalidate you theory. Articulating the difficult questions, those ones where we just don’t seem to have all the right words, this is what we do as leaders. And then we join our people and help search for answers and listen for signals that there are better ways to formulate our questions.

Oh, and this process does not have an end. This is what we do. We ask better questions. All the time.

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