Published by Geoff Kelly, Kelly Strategic Influence
Wisdom to lead minds:
“Nothing shapes our lives so much as the questions we ask.”
Why Great Leaders Turn to Questions for their Answers
Great leaders ask great questions, because great questions transform the
way people think and act.
IIn 1961 new US President John Kennedy famously galvanised the nation when
he called on citizens to “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask
what you can do for your country.”
Great questions jolt people out of their prevailing complacency, group
think and tunnel vision. They stimulate new ideas, challenge us to go
beyond the ordinary, and lead to higher levels of understanding and
Too often, however, leaders in a hurry or too taken with their own
ideas and opinions don’t ask questions. Perhaps worse, many ask questions
that attach blame, intimidate or otherwise diminish people. Questions
like “What’s the hold-up?”; “Who’s not on board with this strategy?” and
“whose idea was that?” drive compliance and submission rather than
So questions can be profoundly powerful.
This takes advantage of our human predisposition to respond to questions
asked of us. We are mostly conditioned to answer questions from an early
age, just as we pop to attention whenever someone tells a story.
This is powerful for leaders to know and use, because when someone asks
you a question it focus your mind on how you will answer it.
So if you are not asking great questions of others then you are not
getting everything you should be getting from every opportunity in
your life and business.
So what are some good questions to use? It's best to make up your
own, but here are some you can start with:
- How can that be done in any other way?
- What other options can you think of?
- What resources have we never used?
- What do we expect to happen if we do that?
- What would happen if you did nothing at all?
- What other options do you have?
- *What is stopping us?
- What happens if…?
- Have we ever thought of…?
- What could we achieve if it wasn’t for ….?
When faced with a specific challenge, former Chairperson of Australia Post
Linda Nicholls had the habit of asking herself and her colleagues “What
would people never say about Post’s ability to …?” Linda and her
colleagues used such questions to stimulate thinking and action to deliver
parcels when customers were home, to franchise post offices as retail
outlets, to branch into electronic delivery of mail and so many other
innovations. Questions like that have made Australia’s postal service
vastly different to that of only 20 years ago.
Linda was once asked what she would do if she ran a hospital. She answered
that people would never say that hospitals had great food. So she would
look at how great food might make a good business case and then set about
making it so.
Status quo thinking and communicating leads leaders and their followers
down seemingly safe paths that lead to mediocre results at best. And at
worst unquestioning thinking has led to disasters like the sinking of
the Titanic, the fall of Singapore in World War Two, the loss of the
Challenger space shuttle, and the collapse of Enron.
Great questions make clear ahead of time only what mostly becomes clear
in hindsight. And that’s what separates great leaders from great critics.
To illustrate, there is now widespread agreement that the so-called
Masters of the Universe – the smartest kids in the room of world
finance – got it so badly wrong and lead us all into what is now known
as the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). And it is equally clear that group
think and complacency were huge factors.
Before the meltdown one recognised financial leader published a contrarian
book that might have changed that history if more had acted on it.
Already recognised as a leading thinker on financial trends and strategies,
Ken Fisher in 2007 published “The only three questions that count.” In its
pages he challenged prevailing theories and glib assumptions with fact and
evidence based arguments for a radical shift in thinking about financial
risk and investment behaviour.
In essence he was arguing for a continual questioning of one’s own thinking
and any prevailing fashion of the day.
The three questions? Their use goes way beyond the arcane world of high
- What do you believe that is actually false?
- What can you fathom that others find unfathomable?
- What is my brain doing to blindside me?
Whether or more leaders asking each other and themselves such questions have
averted the GFC may be impossible to judge? However, there is abundant
evidence that people who asked and answered these questions did way better
than the other lot.
So, really smart leaders don't just stop at asking such questions of others.
They spend at least as much attention on asking and answering such questions
Whether you are a leader now or aspire to lead others in future, what are
the questions you will use to make it so?
More next month...
Geoff Kelly works with leaders who are frustrated that others don't fully support their ideas and strategies. He mainly works with corporate leaders around the world, but also leaders in Government and Not for Profit. He is also a popular speaker on this and related subjects. See www.kellystrategicinfluence.com.au, email [email protected] or call +613 9678 9218 for more information
© 2009 Geoff Kelly All rights reserved.
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