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The 6 Types of Questions Great Leaders Ask

In a world where we always expect our leaders to have the answers, what role do questions
play in leading effectively? In my work at Duke, Ive had the opportunity to engage with
leaders across different industries and sectors from heads of Fortune 100 companies, to
government officials, to entrepreneurial visionaries. One thing Ive observed time and again
is that the most effective leaders dont worry about having all of the answers themselves.
Instead, they are masters of asking great questions. Effective leaders recognize that in
todays rapidly shifting marketplace, issues are complicated and complex. Its nearly
impossible for any one person to have all of the data, knowledge, and experience needed to
generate the best strategies and solutions. So, they surround themselves with those who
have knowledge, expertise, or points of views that they dont possess. They understand that
the leadership role is less about being a subject matter expert and more about the ability to
surface key information that shapes decision-making.
In this context, effective leaders use questions to:
1. Establish credibility and convey who they are. Effective leaders are fearless
about asking questions because a well-framed question can highlight the understanding of
an issue, and communicate the questioners point of view. Think about great interviewers
such as Barbara Walters, Larry King, or Oprah Winfrey, and how their questions convey
both their areas of expertise, as well as their values.
As Ellen Kullman, Chairman and CEO of Dupont, who also sees her role as the chief
people recruiter, had shared with me: You can tell more from a person by the questions that
they ask than the answer that they give.
2. Drive to the heart of an issue. They ask questions that filter the critical
information from the noise, and that help connect the dots. They take a step back and ask,
Why is this the case? How does this affect us? What are we assuming? What do we need to
know that we dont yet know? What other questions do we need to be asking right now?

3. Get people to focus on the potential for positive change, rather than
on a negative reality. This is especially needed today when uncertainty and bad news
plague even the best of organizations. Madison Avenue legend Keith Reinhard, retired
Chairman and CEO of DDB Worldwide, once recounted the story of what happened when
DDB lost the American Airlines (AA) account. The news dealt a major blow to employee
morale.
So on that day, Keith asked, If you were to write the headline for the DDB and the AA
relationship five years from now, what would that headline be? By asking a question that
ignited his employees imagination, he also rekindled a sense of optimism. In the end, his
team came up with ideas that enabled them to win back the AA account.
4. Encourage collaboration. Well-constructed questions can resolve the tension of
seemingly opposing viewpoints, as well as get people excited about working together. While
there is no template, an approach I use is to first steer the conversation away from the zerosum mindset that opposing parties typically hold and find ways to connect the valid aspects
from each. Then, try to unearth the motivations behind each viewpoint. The resulting
information can lead to questions that focus them on an integrative (different from a
compromising), and potential third and more effective option.
5. Foster

stronger

sense

of

personal

ownership

and

accountability.Questions, as opposed to declarations, create a different power dynamic


between the questioner and the respondent. Posing a question can elevate the sense of
power of the respondent without diminishing the power of the questioner.
For example, Mellody Hobson, Chairman of the Boards of DreamWorks Animation SKG and
Ariel Mutual Funds, and Director of Starbucks, told me the story of how she had used
questions as a way of providing tough feedback. A few years ago, an employee was underperforming less and making mistakes. Mellody showed the data to the employee and asked:
Based on this data, what would you think, or do, if you were in my shoes? Not only did the
employee come to the same conclusion as she had, but by framing the feedback as a
question, Mellody instilled in the employee a greater sense of accountability for how to
improve the situation.

6. Develop leadership talent in others. Questions have the power to prompt


reflection on the part of the respondent. In my role as an executive leadership coach, I find
that being prescriptive often isnt as useful as helping a person connect the dots, and realize
that they already know the right answer.
In wrestling with some tough situations, simply starting with questions such what makes this
challenging and what would you like to see happen can begin to help the coachee probe
more deeply . In the process, they gain a greater awareness of self and the issues. As they
begin to recognize and grow more confident in their personal capabilities, they also begin to
unleash their true leadership potential. So, next time you find yourself in a conversation or
meeting, resist the urge to jump in and give answers. Rather, step back, listen and see if
there are questions that might help everyone understand more deeply, spark their
imaginations, drive collaboration, deepen a greater sense of ownership, and better convey
who you are and what you stand for to others.
And then, ask.