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Asking the Right Questions: An Exploration of Effective Leadership Through Inquiry


The most effective leaders are not those who provide all the answers, but rather, those who ask the right questions. Questioning opens doors to understanding problems more deeply, empowering others to think critically and lead, and fostering an organizational culture of learning and growth.


Today we will explore how questioning can strengthen leadership in practice.


Research Foundation: Questioning as Leadership


Questioning has long been linked to strong leadership in academic research. Kouzes and Posner (1995) found that influential leaders see themselves as learners and actively seek to understand others' perspectives through inquiring conversation. Drath and Palus (1994) proposed that effective questioning helps leaders develop shared meaning and enable participation, two vital components of leading change. Hackman and Johnson (2013) categorized questioning as a core leadership competency and emphasized its importance for achieving group and organizational goals. These studies highlight how asking questions fosters insight, inclusion and progress - hallmarks of exemplary leadership in practice.


Using Questions to Gain Insight


One foundational way questioning supports leadership is by helping uncover hidden truths and generate fresh perspectives. Through open-ended inquiries, leaders can tap into others' knowledge and lived experiences to better comprehend challenges, opportunities and realities on the ground. For example, during a strategic planning process at a marketing firm, the CEO asked each department head questions like "What barriers have prevented us from reaching new clients in this sector in the past?" and "What strengths or assets do we have that could help us here that we may not be leveraging fully?" These questions surfaced nuances in the business environment and capabilities that informed a more innovative five-year plan. Questioning also helps surface unconscious assumptions that may be holding an organization back from progress or optimal performance. For instance, at a manufacturing plant struggling with quality defects, the plant manager inquired "What unspoken beliefs do we have about our capabilities here that may no longer serve us?" This led to reexamining long-held cultural norms to revolutionize quality practices. In both cases, insightful questioning unearthed tacit knowledge driving positive change.


Engaging Team Members Through Inquiry


Beyond illuminating existing realities, effective questioning also activates and engages others. Asking for input in a genuine, thoughtful way invites participation and shared responsibility critical for organizational success. The leadership team at a telecommunications startup realized employee motivation and retention was declining, so the CEO began weekly one-on-one meetings with an open agenda centered around questions like "What energizes you in your work?" and "How could we better support your development and growth here?" This fostered transparency, validated individual experiences, and surfaced cost-effective solutions jointly implemented to boost morale and performance. At a children's hospital, after surveying showed insufficient nursing staff, the chief nursing officer held town hall meetings asking questions to crowdsource ideas like "If you could change one thing about our staffing processes, what would it be and why?" The resulting discussions not only identified pragmatic steps to address workload issues, but also increased nurses' sense of influence and commitment to patient care excellence. In both situations, leadership questioning catalyzed productive participation critical to addressing complex organizational challenges.


Using Questions to Drive Accountability


Beyond unlocking insight and activating others, strategic questioning from leaders also cultivates accountability. Asking the right evaluative questions compels members to examine processes, behaviors and outcomes with rigor and honesty. For example, at an accounting firm struggling with client retention, partners held monthly reviews asking direct reports questions such as "How specifically did you demonstrate care and responsiveness to each client this month?" and "What could you have done differently to build stronger relationships or resolve any issues more effectively?" These accountability questions surfaced exactly where relationships needed mending and encouraged goal-setting around specific skills improvement. Similarly, in a hospital department falling short of quality benchmarks, the head nurse began rounds asking frontline staff pointed questions like "What barriers prevented you from completing this safety check on schedule yesterday?" and "How will you ensure it does not occur again going forward?" Not only did this identify root causes for remediation, but the expectation of answers drove greater ownership over responsibilities and goals. In these instances, leadership questioning cultivated mindsets of responsibility and improvement.


Leveraging Questions to Catalyze Change


Perhaps most impactfully, strategic questioning from leaders can initiate and propel positive organizational change. Asking the right forward-looking inquiries stimulates creativity, sets a shared vision, and spurs coordinated effort towards transformation. At an innovation consultancy wanting to expand globally, the founding partners asked associates questions such as "Where do you see the greatest potential for our services outside North America and why?" and "What partnerships or resources would help us achieve a foothold in that market within two years?" The ensuing discussions laid the groundwork for their first overseas locations. Likewise, preparing for a hospital merger, executive leadership kicked off planning meetings with questions like "What services or programs do you think the combined organization should prioritize to better serve patients?" and "What structural changes need to occur to accommodate that priority effectively?" This guided brainstorming around a joint medical mission, division of roles and timelines for integration. In both cases, questioning opened new strategic perspectives and collective problem-solving that propelled change momentum.


Conclusion


Effective leadership is as much about the questions asked as the answers provided. By developing skills of strategic and empathetic inquiry, leaders at all levels can uncover hidden insights, invite participation, cultivate accountability and catalyze positive transformation. Questioning fosters inclusion, learning and progress vital for organizational success in today's complex world. While answers provide certainty in the moment, questions pave the way to strengthened relationships, shared understanding and continuous improvement over the long term. Ultimately, the most impactful leaders are those who embrace inquiry as a core leadership competency for driving engagement, performance and beneficial change.


References


  • Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1995). The leadership challenge: How to keep getting extraordinary things done in organizations. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Drath, W. H., & Palus, C. J. (1994). Making common sense: Leadership as meaning-making in a community of practice. Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership.

  • Hackman, M. Z., & Johnson, C. E. (2013). Leadership: A communication perspective (6th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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