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Often as a leader, people look to me for answers. And often I don’t have them. What I have developed in the ability to ask good questions. Francis Bacon once said “A prudent question is one half of wisdom.” Sam Deep and Lyle Sussman in their 1993 book ‘What To Ask When You Don’t Know What To Say‘ discuss the other half of wisdom as listening, opening your eyes and ears to understand. Their quote “questions are magic” is something I have incorporated into my leadership tool box.

Just asking questions is sometimes not enough. As in many parts of our leadership, timing is everything. You need to have the time and place to listen to the answer, not just ask. I have also experienced asking a question on the run and not having enough time to give my attention to the answer. I should have timed it differently—I needed the answer to avoid a controversy which plagued me for months. Another leadership tool incorporated—ask the question when I can listen and make the time.

Questions can also be used to check understanding, solicit feedback, and obtain buy-in. In Peter Block’s book “Flawless Consulting Field book and Companion” (2001), there is an entire section on the power of questions to get answers to organizational issues and a wonderful discussion on some fundamentals of a good question. A great guide! I have yet another tool to assist when I am not sure of a direction, what I need to ask and what I need to hear.

Finally, asking questions and waiting for the answers takes courage and is risky. For many years, organizations have encouraged and supported leaders (or managers) who have all the answers. In fact, many of the organizations I have been in would not make a decision or bring up an idea until it was clear the positional leader would approve. To do something other than that may have been career suicide. This is where a number of leadership aspects come into play: leading up, taking a risk, having courage to change or suggest, innovating, or even using the same question process for supervisors, managers, directors and leaders. Questions are useful at all levels of the organization and can create sustainable change.

Leadership tools = questions + answers. Think about it.

Pat Greer is the academic director of the Leadership and Organizations program at University College at the University of Denver.

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