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A Question of Leadership


Guest articles > A Question of Leadership


by: Tom Laughlin


Every leader has a story that begins with, “I told them to…” and ends with disaster. Misunderstandings, bad assumptions and general lack of communication contribute to more lost opportunities and wasted resources than any other leadership challenge. Let’s look at how provocative questions and profound listening can lead the way.

I have a client; we’ll call him Jim, who leads an organization of about 250 people. My feedback interviews with Jim’s staff revealed a visionary, engaged, enthusiastic leader who was universally liked and respected. Unfortunately, his style also contributed to some costly debacles. One time, Jim’s enthusiasm and encouragement for an event was mistaken by an administrative assistant as permission to print a flyer with the wrong date and a collection of spelling errors. Jim assumed someone would edit the flyer.

When I related the story of the wayward flyer in our feedback debrief Jim groaned, “I didn’t know he was going to print it like that! Do I need to check all the details myself? What do I need to do?" My suggestion: ask more questions!

Why Questions Work

Questions help you stay in tune with the operational flow. You don’t need to remember all the details. Just listen and intervene when necessary. Jim admits that if he had asked, “What are you going to do next?” he would have surely redirected the administrative assistant to the event coordinator for approval. He didn’t need to get involved in the details to have an impact.

Questions are more effective than direction. How many times has someone followed your instructions to the letter with poor results? They didn’t give you enough information about the situation, didn’t completely understand your instructions or simply didn’t have the ability to implement your idea. If you ask your staff for ideas they will incorporate all the information they have, understand how to implement the idea, and probably have the skills to execute it. They will also feel a sense of ownership for the outcome.

“In all affairs it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” Bertrand Russell

People become trapped in the organization’s accumulated knowledge and established procedures. I know a manager who questioned a policy that cost his department valuable time and resources. The policy was in place to protect the company if a vendor became insolvent. In this case, the vendor was the U.S. Postal Service. The company made an exception.

How to Ask Questions

To ask good questions you must learn to listen, really listen. Here are some tips on how to listen effectively:

  • Wait for a complete answer when you ask a question. Don’t interrupt.
  • Be patient. Questions can take people by surprise so allow some time for an answer to emerge. Suggest that people get back to you later if you think they need time to develop an informed answer.
  • Keep your mind clear. You can’t listen and think of the next thing that you want to say at the same time. If necessary, write down your questions and comments while you listen.
  • Repeat back what you heard to verify your understanding.

Ask questions like Colombo. Peter Falk turned disarming curiosity into a work of art in his portrayal of the relentless detective. If you ask questions in a curious manner rather than a demanding one you will put people at ease. Plus, people will gain clarity over their own thoughts and intentions as they answer. I was at a presentation to a division president who, during the lunch break, casually asked what kind of a competitive response the proposal might provoke. By the end of lunch the presenters modified their recommendation.

Your best source of questions is intuition but you’ll need a little practice and some courage to ask in this manner. Intuitive questions come from your unconscious mind, your gut, which can process much faster and consider a lot more information than your conscious mind. You’ll need practice to turn those “feelings” into questions. In addition, intuitive questions many times don’t, at first, seem to make any sense. That’s where the courage comes in.

If you are at a loss for a good question just ask why…5 times. Here’s an illustration.

Business is bad.

Why? Revenue is down from last year.

Why? Unit sales are down from last year.

Why? We had an unusually large order from a customer last year.

Why? The salesman convinced them to take 3 months worth of inventory.

Why? There was a sales contest for a trip to Hawaii.

A sales contest looks like a viable remedy after the second question. It doesn’t look so good after the fifth. In fact, maybe no remedy is necessary. A thorough understanding of the situation may be enough.

To ask provocative questions and listen profoundly takes practice, discipline and patience. Limit yourself to questions when someone walks in your office and then listen, really listen. The results might surprise you.


Tom Laughlin is the President of Caravela Inc, a leadership consulting firm based in Minneapolis Minnesota. You can find more information about Caravela and Tom Laughlin at http:\\ or send an e-mail to

Contributor: Tom Laughlin

Published here on: 24-Oct-10

Classification: Leadership

Website: http:\\

MSWord: A Question of Leadership.doc

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