Nick Pitts and I were able to attend a recent event where a prominent journalist engaged in a Q & A about important issues facing our country. While the substance of his answers were interesting in their own way, the biggest takeaway for me from the event was what was probably a throw-away line for him. As he was describing a conversation he had with his boss at the time, he tried to give the context behind one of the questions that the boss had asked him. He stopped for a brief moment and said “You know, good CEOs and leaders always ask the right questions.”
I didn’t particularly resonate with much of the rest of the journalist’s comments the rest of the event, but that one line stuck with me and caused me to reflect on its truth. Why is it that the best leaders always seem to be asking the right questions? And what are those particular questions they seem to ask? We’ve all been in situations where we’ve witnessed this. There you are, in the middle of a meeting, whether it’s a large group of co-workers or just a one-on-one, and all of a sudden the leader stops the flow of conversation for a moment to ask a question. As the question is presented, the atmosphere of the meeting completely changes.
Good questions provide focus and clarity to a haphazard discussion. At other times they open the door to new ways of thinking. In still other contexts they cut like a knife through talk designed to obfuscate and distort. Questions have an unsettling quality that disturbs the equilibrium.
Think about some of the great questions in the Bible: The Philippian jailer asking Paul and Silas “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30); Jacob, wrestling with God, being asked “What is your name?” (Genesis 32:27); God answering Job from out of the whirlwind “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4); Jesus asking the blind man near Jericho “What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41); Jesus asking Peter in Caesarea Philippi “But who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:15). The list could go on and on with all the great questions.
We live in an ALL CAPS culture that tries to talk over each other and smash each other with our ideas or opinions. But great leaders know that sometimes the situation doesn’t need an authoritative statement or directive, however right or true it may be. Sometimes the great need of the moment is for the right question to be asked.
If questions are so important to leadership, we need to ask ourselves if we are asking the right kinds of questions. Here is a list of a few of the kinds of questions that I’ve heard great leaders ask:
In hiring: Why do you want to work here? Why has God called you here?
In planning & strategy: What resources do we have that aren’t getting maximized?
In problem solving: What is the underlying root issue here?
In mentoring: What are you learning right now in your life?
In brainstorming: Will this idea/initiative/program further our mission or confuse and distract us from our mission as an organization?
Os Guinness helps clarify why questions are so valuable for leaders: “Statements can be subversive, especially if the information they carry is explosive. But in most cases, questions carry a subversive power that statements cannot match, because a statement always has the quality of ‘take it or leave it.’ . . . Questions, by contrast, are powerful for two reasons. First, they are indirect, and second, they are involving.” (Fool’s Talk, 163)
Great questions stem from a curious and engaged mind. Many leaders are too busy and too scattered to be able to engage at a level deep enough to understand what kinds of questions need to be asked. Our world of always-on technology, instant gratification, and ever-shorter attention spans pushes us further and further away from taking the time to think through what needs to be asked. Our lives as leaders need to be fixed and directed in such a way that we have the capacity to help our people understand the tasks and goals before us. Many times this starts with a simple question.