Your Most Important Skill As A Leader
The most valuable skill a leader needs to possess is the ability to ask strategic questions and listen in ways that create increased understanding and insight. Google conducted a research study called Project Oxygen to determine what qualities made their best leaders. In a survey involving over 80,000 participants, they identified 10 traits that were common among their most effective leaders. At the top of the list was to ask and listen.
Asking strategic questions which builds understanding, strengthens trust and empowers innovation. The ability to do this well could be called a leader's super power. Not surprisingly, Jesus specialized in this. Jesus was recorded speaking in 2042 verses in the Gospels and roughly 15% of the time Jesus was recorded asking questions. For example, Jesus asked questions like:
"Why do you worry about clothes?"
"Who do men say that I am?"
"Who do you say that I am?"
"Who is your neighbor?"
"Why are you so afraid?"
"What does the scriptures say?"
"Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds?"
Martin B. Copenhave adds this insight:
"Contrary to some common assumptions, Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man, but more like the Great Questioner. In the Gospels Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3. Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred."
Let's look at three key reasons why asking strategic questions increases team effectiveness, and then lets look at three ways to practice this more effectively.
The Power of Strategic Questions
Questions promote insight.
When leaders ask questions, they automatically open the door for dialogue, and those they lead feel their concerns and ideas are more readily shared and heard. This promotes better understanding among the team allowing members to come up with solutions to challenges which are being experienced.
Questions foster initiative.
As insight is gained, this fosters an environment for greater initiative. This is because people begin to trust one another. Trust reduces fears and insecurities. Members are now more free to share ideas and step into their own action.
Questions allow for innovation.
When team members are growing in insight and engaged in action, then innovation will be the result. With ownership comes innovation. The leader is then seeing a multiplying influence.
How to Ask Effective Questions
Asking questions is part of the equation. How to ask is just as important. Here are three steps to ease into this new approach.
Ask open-ended questions.
One staple of any leader is the open-ended question. Open-ended questions prompt people to answer with stories which yield deeper and new insights. Open questions can help with that. Here are some examples which show the difference between closed and open questions.
Was the event a success?
How did the event further your mission?
Were you disappointed?
In what ways did the disappointment effect your decision making?
Do you get excited in this management role?
How do you see your talents most effectively used in this management role?
Has being on this team caused you to grow?
What are key ways that being on this team has caused you to grow?
Did your communication go well?
What do you think was more effective about your communication?
Christopher J. Frank explains:
Asking open-ended questions is like adjusting the lens of a camera, opening the aperture to create a wider field of view. This wider field sets a tone of receptivity, signaling that you are open to new information, in learning mode, and ready for a dialogue not a monologue.
Focus the questions.
Going back to the camera analogy, open-ended questions provide much more real estate to work with, but ultimately a sharper picture to make smarter decisions. To quote the famous photojournalist Robert Capa, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Questions also allow you to narrow the lens to get closer. The questions will often move from general understanding to more specific action steps.
What does success and failure look like in this project?
How does this square with your team's mission?
What are your biggest obstacles to overcome?
Why do you think you have not overcome these yet?
Which problems should you tackle first?
When do you think you can realistically accomplish each step?
Where will you go from here?
Who do you need to follow up with this?
If you remember the series Columbo, the seemingly clueless detective would start with general questions and move to very specific questions. This is a good approach, as well, in leadership.
Empower your team.
Once you’ve started asking questions, give your team the green light to act on decisions, solve problems, and move ahead.
The great thing about this skill is that it is practiced from our earliest years of learning to speak, it doesn’t cost a thing, and you can start using it more effectively as you finish reading this article. As Solomon declares:
“A person's thoughts are like water in a deep well, but someone with insight can draw them out.” (Proverbs 20:5)