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A question to leaders everywhere: What questions are you asking?

September 11, 2012 Keith Coats Boomers, Information flow, comms and meetings, Leadership, Teams No Comments

Most people collect something or other. For some it is stamps, for others it might be model cars or antiques or things that have little significance beyond the passion of the collector. I too have a collection, albeit an unusual one but one that I think every leader would do well to imitate. I know that may sound somewhat presumptuous but I really do believe that my collection can make a significant difference to those tasked with the heavy responsibility of leadership.

To be honest I’m not quite sure when it all started and it is not the kind of collection that one can display; nor is it one that could be sold as it really doesn’t have any intrinsic value in and of itself. Yes, it is an unusual collection but one I would like to share with you as you make your way in the journey we call ‘leadership’.

I collect questions.

Not just any questions but those kinds of questions that seem to have the ability to turn things inside-out, upside-down and sometimes, right-way up. The kind of questions that can serve as a companion for quite some time and that tend to stick with you whether you like it or not. The kind of questions that are hard to ignore and the type of questions that somehow invite new insights and fresh perspectives. The type of questions that act as gateways to paths previously thought unattainable.

But you know what I mean.


We have all encountered the magic of such questions: ones that seem to be carefully crafted for a specific time and place and that can change things forever when they intersect with our busy lives. They often take us by surprise and there is no set template from where they come. They can appear innocuous, incongruent and unpredictable as to when they show up.

Smart leaders understand the importance and power of good questions. It is said that the mind works best in the presence of a question and so the right question leads to ‘right thinking’ and ultimately, the ‘right actions’. The need today is for leaders to remain curious rather than certain or as Mark Twain put it, ‘It is not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble but rather what we know for certain that just ain’t so.’

Questions engage, unlock, challenge, and reveal. Questions allow us to slow down or catch-up. Used wisely, they are the weight that builds the muscle that leaders and organisations need if they are to make their way successfully into the future with all its inherent paradox, convergence and complexity. Smart leaders understand that the time when ‘leaders had all the answers’ is long gone. They understand that their role is to be asking the right questions at the right time to the right people. That is not as easy as it may sound. In fact, smart leaders start by asking questions of themselves that challenge their own certainties, assumptions and viewpoints. An easy way to spot whether leaders do this is to see how they handle questions asked of them.

Yes, good questions have the potential to move us forward. They have the potential to take us deeper and when we understand that ‘you lead out of who you are’ the importance of finding the ‘good questions’ becomes obvious.

I collect questions.

Some have been uncomfortable companions and others are still to be authentically engaged. But here then, for your consideration, are some of the questions that have made my list over the years. Why not write some of them down – those that resonate with you –  and then start your own list? You will find questions suitable for yourself as well as those with whom you live and work. I don’t think you will be sorry that you did so (start your list) when viewed from the vantage point that we call ‘hindsight’.

But, as I said, smart leaders already know this! Some of these questions (from my list below) can only be asked of the individual, others can be asked of a team, organisation or collective. Some simply need to remain private. Here then, in no specific order, are some from my collection:

• Have you found joy in your life?

• Has your life brought joy to others?

• Where is the place of your deepest learning?

• What do I want?

• Can I let go of that which I don’t want to lose?

• What is the change that I am avoiding?

• What am I learning?

• To whom do I need to prove myself– and why?

• What can I learn from moments of embarrassment?

• What defines me?

• What makes me defensive – and why is this?

• What do I find in the silence?

• What in the silence finds me?

• What is the background music in my life?

• With whom or what am I competing?

• Where do I belong?

• Where did we come from?

• Who did we leave behind?

• Who are the guardians – and what are they guarding?

• Who are the paradigm shifters – and what are they saying?

• What do we / I need to learn next?

• What gifts have I received?

• What is my gift?

• What is my trapdoor?

• What direction am I facing?

• What has been the hardest feedback you have received?

• What was ‘the truth’ in such feedback?

• When last did you receive feedback – what did you do with it?

• How would you like to be remembered?

• Why am I afraid to tell you who I am?

• What is our ‘ridiculous’ idea about our future?

• What would it take to realize this idea?

• What do we need to stop / start doing?

• Am I afraid of dying – why is this?

…these then represent just a sample from my collection. Some are mine, most are not. I would be keen to hear what questions you have that have proved significant in your journey. Thank you.

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The main contributors to this blog are:

Dr Graeme Codrington, co-founder of TomorrowToday, author, speaker and expert on the changing world of work
Dean van Leeuwen, co-founder and CEO of TomorrowToday UK & Europe, speaker, consultant and Chief Intellectual Adventurer
Catherine Garland, head of the TomorrowToday Strategic Insights team and previous MD of GFK Research in the United Kingdom
Keith Coats, co-founder of TomorrowToday South Africa, leadership development guru, speaker and author
Professor Nick Barker, director of the Asia Pacific Leadership Program at the East-West Center in Hawaii, leadership development expert
Markus Kramer, marketing director for Aston Martin and brand building expert
Keith Holdt, Visionary Enabler of business growth and change, currently works for LDC as an investment executive.
Dil Sidhu, Chief External Officer, Manchester Business School; Executive education specialist.
Dawna MacLean, expert on fostering meaningful change and creating authentic experiences through transparent and trusted partnerships.

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