Uncommon Leadership: Ask, Don’t Tell.

Written by Gregg Imamoto

“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” –Bruce Lee

Early in my career I was taught that good leaders must know everything in order to tell their teams what to do. When I asked, “Everything, about what?”, the coaching was helpful, ”Everything about EVERYTHING.” Lacking perspective, I didn’t spend much time thinking about the impossibility of this expectation as much as I spent time trying to execute it. I was naively optimistic that if I just worked longer and harder it was possible to know everything and fulfill the expectation.

Fast forward 20 years and “leaders” are still trying to fulfill that expectation. You know the situation… we’ve all worked with THAT leader. The one who projects all the answers, experience and directives. The person who tells you exactly what needs to be done, even though a better solution may already be known.

In contrast, what have I learned and observed in good leaders? Good leaders are not consumed with knowing everything–they are extremely comfortable with the unknown. They don’t prescribe solutions, give answers and directives, or require their teams to provide information that will not be used. They ask great questions, questions that drive clarity, engagement and accountability. They challenge and stretch people to always think strategically, analytically and executionally.

To make the shift from know it all to all is known, here are five simple questions that leaders should consistently ask:

1. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?

In 2012, John Kotter wrote a piece for Forbes that used an excerpt from Moneyball to communicate how to reprogram thinking to achieve a better solution. Effective leaders ask this question to ensure there is clarity, proper focus and efficient utilization of resources.

2. What does success look like?

Leaders want to know if the team has thought about the right outcome(s). Stop yourself from telling people your answer–you’re likely going to be wrong, or at a minimum, you won’t be 100% correct. Focus on helping ensure the team properly defines the win.

3. How can I be helpful?

Great leaders serve their teams. Are you inspiring, teaching and providing resources for your team? If you’re not serving your team, your employee engagement is likely low and you’re not scaling your impact.

4. What happens if we’re not successful?

Leaders always want a Plan B before there is a need for one. They look around corners and anticipate challenges — Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) is expected and employee accountability increases as critical thinking is broadened around scenario planning.

4. What question(s) should I be asking that I haven’t already?

If you want to get your team to think about the big picture, you need to stop defining the boundaries of the picture. Every time I’ve asked this question in any setting, it elicits the same response, “That’s a great question.” Team courage and a values-based environment are promoted when members feel confident exposing leaders to their own blind spots.

If you think you may be THAT leader, or demonstrate some of the characteristics, use your next opportunity to try and ask some questions. But, be careful to not ask questions in a patronizing manner, such as “Being the dumb one in the room…” or “Are you sure?” False modesty or a doubting disposition will only undermine and unwind any trust you’ve built within your team.

All leaders can benefit from putting a mental speed bump between our brain and our mouth. The next time you feel compelled to speak up, ask yourself… am I asking or am I telling?

Want more like this? Visit the Bulldog Drummond Uncommon Blog.

Gregg Imamoto is a distressed/turnaround business consultant and executive coach that has worked with Fortune 1000 to start-up organizations. Connect with Gregg on LinkedIn: in/greggimamoto (ONO Solutions).

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