Leaders Should Ask More Questions and Do Less Telling

Michael Abrashoff, commander of the battleship USS Benfold, turned around a poor-performing ship to make it, by all available measures, the best performing ship in the US Navy. Captain Abrashoff used to ask every member of his 300-strong crew these three questions:

  1. 1. What do you like most about working here?
  2. 2. What don't you like about working here?
  3. 3. If you were the Captain, what would you change? (1)
Finding solutions through using questions to direct our attention goes all the way back to Socrates. And there is plenty of evidence that leading by asking questions is more effective than leading by telling. (2) But, too many leaders don't like questions.


The problem leaders have with questions derives from two related leadership conceptions: 1) the need to appear infallible and 2) the concept of the leader as trouble-shooter or solution-finder. There's a common third reason leaders don't ask questions: they fear they'll get an answer they don't like.


When formal leaders do ask questions, they commonly ask the wrong ones: "Why haven't you achieved this target?" or "What's wrong and who's to blame?" (3). Even the Socratic method can backfire when wielded by someone in authority who practises flagellation by questioning.

Half-smart leaders half get it. They phrase instructions as questions, trying to lead people by the nose to the solutions the leaders want. But questioning as a disguised form of persuasion is a sham exercise and everyone knows it.


David Rock & Jeffrey Schwartz's recent work on the neuroscience of leadership points up how people buy into change. The brain's circuitry physically changes as new pathways are created, and our perception of reality alters. This generates a burst of gamma radiation in the brain and a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline - the 'Aha!' moment.

But the change has to come from within, not from without. Questions allow us to reflect and arrive at the conclusion that the change is necessary and possible. That conclusion happens suddenly, appearing as a spark, a moment of epiphany or 'insight', as Rock labels it (I prefer epiphany). By contrast, when we are told a change is necessary, the brain resists, no matter how logical the argument for change might seem to the person putting it. (4)


Sidney Finkelstein says companies that are unable to question their prevailing view of reality are zombies. A zombie company, he says, is "a walking corpse that just doesn't know that it's dead - because this company has created an insulated culture that systematically excludes any information that could contradict its reigning picture of reality." (5)


Michael Marquardt tells us succinctly what makes a great question:

"Great questions are selfless, not asked to illustrate the cleverness of the questioner or to generate information or an interesting response for the questioner. They're generally supportive, insightful and challenging. They're often unpresumptuous and offered in a sharing spirit. Great questions are asked at a time when they generate the strongest amount of reflection and learning." (6)

Marquardt also gives the following examples of questions leaders may find useful:

"What is a viable alternative?

What are the advantages and disadvantages you see in this suggestion?

Can you more fully describe your concerns?

What are your goals?

How would you describe the current reality?

What are a few options for improvement?

What will you commit to do, by when?"

A couple of those are a bit uninspiring and bloodless, I feel. I prefer the expansiveness of a question like "What way forward can you see?"


Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick (7) and head of Semco, the Brazilian group of companies, says that the most important question for everyone to ask is "Why?" and that it should be used to drill down at least three layers to ensure the foundation reasoning beneath any practise, procedure or decision is firm. At Toyota, employees are taught to drill down even further, asking 'why' consecutively five times.


The power of 'What if...' thinking. 'Why...' questions challenge existing practises. Conversely, 'Why not...' and 'What if...' questions open up discovery and innovation.

By encouraging people to ask 'Why?' and act on their answers, you are allowing them to think for themselves instead of trying to provide answers for them. And that's the essence of leadership. It's taken a couple of hundred years, but Kant's summing up of the Enlightenment into three words - "Think for yourself" has spread to every corner of the workplace.


(1) Kevin Freiberg told me this and led me to Mike Abrashoff's book It's Your Ship: Management Techniques From The Best Damn Ship In The Navy.

(2) The Center for Creative Leadership studied 191 successful executives and concluded the key to success was creating opportunities to ask questions, and asking them. (Source: Michael Marquardt's book, cited below).

(3) Mike Harris, founding CEO of First Direct bank, told me "'What's wrong and who's to blame?' are the most destructive questions leaders can ask".

(4) Two books: Quiet Leadership, David Rock and Appreciative Inquiry, David Cooperrider.

(5) Why Smart Executives Fail, by Sidney Finkelstein

(6) Leading with Questions: How Leaders Find the Right Solutions by Knowing What to Ask, by Michael J. Marquardt

(7) See the books Maverick and The Seven Day Weekend, Ricardo Semler

Article copyright (c) Phil Dourado


Phil Dourado is a leadership author, consultant and community builder. He is the author of two books on leadership, published by John Wiley & Sons, and is founder and curator of The Leadership Hub, an online community of practice. He was for five years Chief Learning Officer of The Inspired Leaders Network, where his job was to research and identify what makes inspiring leaders and how best to develop leadership capital in large organizations.

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