Leading by Asking

I started a routine with my children when they were in grade school.  When we were having dinner, I would often ask each one of them, “Did you ask any good questions today?”  They would sometimes respond, “Yes, I asked if we had to know this for the test!”  And we would all laugh.  But then I would gently remind them, “There’s a difference between a question and a good question.  Learn to ask good questions.”  Table talk went on with, “Could you pass the green beans?” and other light and not so light topics, but as the years went by, I could see that the seeds that I planted began to produce results.   They learned to think for themselves, which was one of my major goals.  I tried to reinforce the importance of thinking critically by reminding them, “Leaders may not always know the right answer, but they usually know the right question.”

When it comes to coaching up your employees, I’ve found that this approach is very effective.  It’s one thing to have the right answers.  It’s another thing to have the right questions.  If you simply give the answers, you may establish yourself as “the expert,” but you may also miss a chance to really develop your employees.  On the other hand, if you ask the right questions, you enable your employees to discover the answers for themselves; you “lead by being led”; and you model for them the importance of asking good questions.

One of the most important areas where this applies is when you meet with your employee to help him/her set annual goals.  As I listen to managers and supervisors talk about this aspect of leadership, I notice that many people pay “lip service” to mutual or shared goals, but in reality, the manager is really dictating the goals to the employee.  In fact, the fear that the employee will somehow set the wrong goals or inadequate goals concerns the manager so much that it overshadows everything else.  However, the most effective leaders try to master the art of leading the employee to establish mutual goals.  One way to do that is to ask good questions.

Instead of simply telling him/her what you want accomplished in the coming year, try asking him/her some questions like these:

  • What do you want to achieve in the next twelve months?
  • What can the organization do to help you?
  • What roadblocks do you face?
  • What else do you need from the organization?
  • What things do I, your manager, do to hinder you?
  • What danger signals should I look for?

If an employee truly feels “safe” to answer, you might be surprised at how much more engaged he/she becomes.


Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

3 responses

  1. I once read (and believe) that an excellent litmus test of a Leader is to watch how often they ask questions (even when they already know the answer) in order to engage and empower, compared to how often they give commands.
    David Childs, Ph.D.
    City of El Paso Consolidated Tax Office

    1. That’s a great observation, David! Thanks for your comment.

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