Leadership Is About Asking Questions Instead of Giving Answers

Lead­er­ship is about mak­ing oth­ers suc­cess­ful. This is the lead­er­ship phi­los­o­phy of Sun­dar Pichai, CEO of Google. The founder of the drug­store chain dm, Götz W. Wern­er, gets even more to the point and states: “Lead­er­ship is nowa­days only legit­i­mate if it is aimed at the self-lead­er­ship of the peo­ple entrust­ed to it”. Lead­er­ship is there­fore an equal func­tion with­in and for a group of peo­ple and always an encounter of adults on par with each oth­er. In con­trast to Tay­lor’s man­age­ment, which is still too deeply root­ed in our hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions, lead­er­ship means first and fore­most ask­ing (the right) ques­tions rather than giv­ing (the right) answers.

What hap­pens in a top-down cul­ture when the leader is wrong? Every­one goes over the cliff.
L. David Mar­quet. Turn The Ship Around!

In his very inter­est­ing book “Turn The Ship Around!” David Mar­quet describes one of the key moments as com­man­der of the nuclear sub­ma­rine USS San­ta Fe. Dur­ing a train­ing exer­cise, a fail­ure of the nuclear reac­tor was sim­u­lat­ed and they had to switch from the steam pow­ered main engine to a small­er bat­tery pow­ered elec­tric propul­sion motor. As he was used to with oth­er types of sub­marines, David Mar­quet gave the com­mand to increase the speed of the elec­tric propul­sion motor from “one third ahead” to “two thirds ahead”. His offi­cer on deck imme­di­ate­ly passed that order on. And then hap­pened — noth­ing! He asked the helms­man why he did not car­ry out the order, and the lat­ter explained to him that for this type of sub­ma­rine there was no “two-thirds ahead”. It then turned out, that his offi­cer on deck of course knew this, but still gave the order because he thought that his com­man­der, due to his train­ing and posi­tion, had knowl­edge he had not. A clas­sic HIPPO moment: High­est paid per­son­’s opinion.

Since then, David Mar­quet refused to give orders. Instead, he ensured that every­one was aware of the mis­sion and its objec­tives and empow­ered his offi­cers to make their own deci­sions. Instead of ask­ing for per­mis­sion as before or ask­ing him for a deci­sion as com­man­der, the offi­cers now had to explain what they intend­ed to do (“I intend to…”). Ide­al­ly, the offi­cer had already con­sid­ered all aspects of the deci­sion (for which, of course, he must have access to all infor­ma­tion) and David Mar­quet only had to answer: “Very well.” At first he had to guide this process with some ques­tions to con­sid­er the dif­fer­ent aspects of the deci­sion, but grad­u­al­ly the offi­cers asked them­selves the right ques­tions and thought through all aspects in advance. From their pre­vi­ous­ly depen­dent posi­tion they were empow­ered to think and act like the commander.

The leader-leader struc­ture is fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent from the leader-fol­low­er struc­ture. At its core is the belief that we can all be lead­ers and, in fact, it’s best when we all are leaders.
L. David Mar­quet. Turn The Ship Around!

Lead­ers who only give answers and make deci­sions based on their posi­tion keep peo­ple depen­dent. They will always come with ques­tions and expect answers. And the leader will give the best pos­si­ble answers, which, as the strik­ing exam­ple of David Mar­quet shows, are not always the best answers and are lim­it­ed by the skills, knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence of a sin­gle deci­sion-mak­er. And who does not remem­ber the sit­u­a­tion that one is won­der­ing at the low­er lev­els of the hier­ar­chy about deci­sions from above and files them under “high­er-paid insights”, just like the offi­cer on deck of the USS San­ta Fe.

Though it is done with good inten­tions giv­ing answers tends to keep peo­ple small and depen­dent. Those who are seri­ous about new lead­er­ship in the sense of the Man­i­festo for Human(e) Lead­er­ship have to grow peo­ple and unleash their poten­tial. A sim­ple and very effec­tive way is to ask ques­tions instead of giv­ing answers. Good ques­tions make you think. A ques­tion is always the explic­it per­mis­sion and invi­ta­tion to think and an effec­tive anti­dote to the insti­tu­tion­al­ized lazi­ness of think­ing and slug­gish deci­sion-mak­ing in hier­ar­chi­cal organizations.

Il est encore plus facile de juger de l’e­sprit d’un homme par ses ques­tions que par ses répons­es. (It is eas­i­er to judge the mind of a man by his ques­tions rather than his answers.)
Pierre-Marc-Gas­ton, duc de Lévis

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