By Carly Fiorina | Our Leadership Guru
As leaders, we think we must direct, decide, declare and demonstrate. And it is true that leaders are often called upon to take action, to make a decision, to delegate, to exhibit knowledge and command. While leaders understandably focus on all these things, sometimes the single most important thing a leader can do is ask the right question and actually listen to the answer.
Leaders do a lot of talking. Sometimes they do all the talking. Sometimes people talk because they like the sound of their own voice, or think they know it all. Arrogance is not leadership. Sometimes though, leaders do too much talking because they think it is expected of them. After all, they are in charge. After all, people are looking to them to point the way. After all, they need to prove that they deserve their position of leadership and are capable. In other words, frequently leaders talk too much because they think they have something to prove.
When leaders do too much of the talking, the directing, the deciding, the declaring and the demonstrating, the people around them become dependent on the leader to carry most of the load. This isn’t good for an organization over the long- term, because capability atrophies and potential is squandered.
When leaders do too much of the talking, their own leadership suﬀers. Over time, people tell the leader what they want to hear, not what they need to know. Over time, a leader stops learning. Over time, a leader becomes disconnected.
Questions are powerful. The right question, asked at the right time, in the right tone, with the right motivation, can reveal real problems and new possibilities. Genuine interest and careful attention to a question’s answers can help build an organization’s capability and confidence, and forge a stronger connection to the leader.
I have begun many team meetings with a simple question: “What do you think is most important for me to know?” In tense or confrontational situations, I often pause and make a simple request: “Help me understand.” In cases where I think someone may be headed in the wrong direction, I often probe with questions that facilitate a shared understanding of possible consequences. “What would be our next steps?” “How do you think our people/customers/competitors would respond?”
The best questions are open-ended and can lead in many directions. The best questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no, but require thought and elaboration. The best questions are asked not to demonstrate expertise or express an opinion, but to seek genuine understanding. The best questions provoke the necessary conversations and facilitate agreement.
When a leader asks a real question and listens to a revealing answer, they must be willing to respond to what they’ve learned. Maybe that’s why too many people conclude it’s easier to do most of the talking. But that’s not leadership.
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